30 December 2016

Top 5 Lifestyle Tips - Things to do Alongside Counselling



(Originally published 7th August 2013)

Counselling is usually for one hour, once a week, for a set duration. That leaves a lot of time spent outside of the counselling room, with the issues that brought a client there perhaps not changing an awful lot between sessions. So I sometimes advise on what steps a client can take to assist the counselling work and help them achieve their goal of overcoming grief, depression, unwanted patterns of behaviour or relationship issues.

1. Take up Meditation

The West is catching up with what the East have known for millenia. Meditation is good for the mind, body and soul. Pretty much everybody has heard of meditation but in the past it has had an air of hippiness or religiousness about it, but even the NHS has caught onto the benefits with the Western-friendly concept of mindfulness (click here for an interesting post exploring the differences/overlaps between meditation and mindfulness).

Here is a short video done by a chap called davidji who succinctly and quite persuasively explains some of the benefits of meditation in this short (2:15min) video (click here if it does not show up on your device):



If you need any more persuasion, try this link from The New York Times regarding research in meditation and how it effects the brain. 

You can start off by trying a guided meditation CD or looking on YouTube for a taster. 

2. Keep a Journal

Keeping a personal journal was a requirement of my training. We had to bring in our journals from time to time to show the tutor that we were writing in them regularly. I really learnt the benefits firsthand of writing down parts of my process. There are a few reasons for why it was so useful:


  • Expressing frustrations without offending anybody
  • Consolidating work done in personal therapy (another requirement of my training)
  • Being able to look back and chart personal growth
  • For visual learners - reinforcing what you have learnt 


Some of my clients keep a journal and write reflectively in between sessions. Sometimes, they might bring some of their thoughts to the next session. There are no rules about what's right or wrong in this respect - each person is different. What I can say though, is that those that keep journals tend to need less sessions overall. This is a hard thing to quantify, but it seems to me that the work is more "efficient" and it keeps us more on track if the client does this work between sessions.

Making a note of any dreams can create fruitful work too. It is quite common for clients to have a highly symbolic and powerful dream the night before a session.

3. Take up some aerobic exercise 

Exercise raises endorphin levels in the brain. Endorphins contribute to our sense of well being, as well as being natural painkillers. Regular exercise will help you to feel fitter and help you get into shape, to feel healthier and better about yourself. Read this NHS article for more information on the relationship between exercise and depression. I wouldn't go so far as to say that exercise can cure depression, but it can help alleviate the symptoms by letting the body access it's natural, feel good hormones.

Aerobic exercise is the kind that gets you out of breath, so walking would need to be to the point that you struggle to speak and get sweaty. Swimming would need to be pushing your limits. Running and strenuous sports such as tennis and squash would count as aerobic exercise, as well as many cardio-based gym classes.

4. Take up yoga, pilates or martial arts

Although these are also described as exercises, I have separated them from aerobic exercise because the benefits are different (although strenuous yoga or martial arts will yield cardio benefits too). The benefits of these forms of exercise are that they strengthen the mind and body connection. These activities require a lot of learning, so the challenge is mental as well as physical. By doing these kinds of activities you can create the space to make changes in areas of your life where you are struggling. It is easier to break old habits if you harness your brain's ability to reshape it's neuronal networks by contunued learning. Joe Dispenza writes extensively about this in his book Evolve Your Brain, which I write about here, along with the reasons why I began to learn a martial art.

5. Pay attention to diet

I am not a nutritionist but I have long been interested in dietary matters. I believe that many people would feel a lot better if they had a dietary overhaul. Sometimes, I enquire about food habits with clients as a poor diet can lead to mood swings, difficulties with sleeping and the worsening of the symptoms of depression, anxiety, the menopause and pre-menstrual tension.

I have had a few clients give up caffeine, or at least cut down, because caffeine can induce anxiety in some people, and cause insomnia in others. Alcohol can lead to depression and anxiety the day following consumption. Many people do not realise the connection between what they eat and their subsequent mood. A food diary can help.

An interesting book to read on the subject is Patrick Holford's The Optimum Nutrition Bible. If you can get half way to eating the way he suggests you'll probably feel a whole lot better.

Amanda Williamson is  BACP Registered private counsellor working in Exeter, Devon. 

Welcome to Counselling in Exeter

4 comments:

thinking-about-leaving.blogspot.co.uk said...

brilliant tips, am working on being better at all of them, (well, in considering the yoga idea, at least!). Wise words as always Amanda, Thanks! Take care x

Amanda Williamson said...

Well done! I think I should probably add taking up dancing to the list of yoga/pilates/martial arts as I think it would be a similar process of exercise for body and mind.

Dani said...

I'm not sure that a blanket recommendation of meditation is particularly safe without knowing a little bit about the background and particular problems of the client.

My own experience of meditation (and I have since discovered that this is not all that rare) is that learning to become aware of inner mental and physical sensation in the setting of previous avoidance or repression for many years can result in being completely overwhelmed with painful emotions and traumatic memories. With the rise in mindfulness meditation as a secular phenomenon, many meditation teachers do not have the training or experience to recognise or deal with this and it can cause a lot of damage.

Meditation is a potentially powerful intervention, but it needs to be approached like any other intervention, with a good understanding of the risks vs benefits. There is some good information out there about the downsides of meditation, although it takes a bit of searching. I have some links on my blog (on the 'articles' resource page) which I have found useful.

Amanda Williamson said...

Thank you for your input Dani. I do appreciate that there are some who find mindfulness/meditation overwhelming and agree that meditation classes should come with a warning of what to look out for in terms of the risks of being retraumatised.

I did look at the links you kindly provided on your site. I do think that there needs to be more in depth research around this as most of the information seems to be anecdotal and therefore perhaps not considered by e.g. the NHS who used mindfulness in some treatments.

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