30 December 2011

Why Love Matters

I recently read Why Love Matters by Sue Gerhardt.

"Sue Gerhardt considers how the earliest relationship shapes the baby's nervous system, with lasting consequences, and how our adult life is influenced by infancy despite our inability to remember babyhood. She shows how the development of the brain can affect future emotional well being, and goes on to look at specific early 'pathways' that can affect the way we respond to stress and lead to conditions such as anorexia, addiction, and anti-social behaviour."

So many people have recommended this book to me - many of them counsellor friends but also some fellow parents. I finally got around it reading it and can see why it is so highly recommended. Having taken an interest in the neuroscience of our emotions, a lot of this book was telling me what I already know, but I do think that it is pitched at a decent level for the average layperson who happens to be interested in learning about the science of our developing minds and how our early experiences shape those of our future. 

An important point for me is that we learn to regulate our emotions through the feedback our parents give us. So a neglected child, who is not taught or demonstrated how to handle emotions will not be as well equipped to deal with them as somebody who has had the relevant feedback and validation as a child. Moreover, by parents demonstrating an ability to handle their own emotions, the child will learn by their example.

The book goes into a lot of detail about what exactly is happening on a physiological (neurological and biochemical) level in infancy and childhood and exactly how it impacts on our emotional intelligence. 

"Repeated positive experiences also get etched in the synapses as expectations of how to behave in relationships. But the neglected or rejected child doesn't end up with the same kind of brain. He doesn't get the opiates that will help build the medial prefrontal cortex...The expectations that are etched in his neuronal pathways are that others will not pay you attention or will treat you with aggression or hostility."

This book also correlates with my intuition when it comes to parenting. For example, I have always felt uncomfortable with extremes of the controlled crying technique, "extinction" in particular. This book is not about shaming parents but about pointing out that latest findings in neuroscience can help us to shape future generations. We can use this knowledge and put it to good use when it comes to making decisions about how we care for our children.

Another aspect of the book I found interesting was that it explains how therapy can help those who's formative experiences have left a deficit substantial enough to be adversely affecting their adult lives:

"...the most potent formula for change. Talking to others, forming a relationship with someone who listens to how you feel, is the major element in unblocking the emotional plumbing and in formulating new, more effective emotion strategies."

Also, an aspect of therapy I had never considered in such terms, but which makes sense to me:

"The progress of the therapy often depends on their ability to face their parents' human weaknesses and failings and let go of the hope that one day they will receive the loving care that they missed out on in early life. They grow up when they realise with increasing compassion that their parents are fallible human beings and perfect maternal or paternal love is unobtainable. Accepting that parents are only imperfect and struggling human beings leads to increased self-acceptance."

An enjoyable and important read. 

13 December 2011

Anger management article

Not looking back in anger

This is an interesting article (above) on anger as it mentions suppressed anger as well as outwardly expressed anger. Suppressed anger can be as problematic and destructive as obvious anger. Passive aggressiveness can wreak havoc in relationships and there can be a dynamic where one person is outwardly angry and the other person silently angry, both reacting to and feeding off each other's differing energies. Sulking, withholding and withdrawing are feeding into the conflict dynamic as much
as shouting and name calling. One is more covert than the other but is no less destructive.

It is harder to pinpoint passive aggressiveness so it is some ways more insidious. It is easier for the outward-expressor of anger to be blamed, and to blame themselves. Blame is itself destructive and solves nothing, whether you are the person doing the blaming or the person accepting the blame.

Some of my clients have come specifically for "anger management" and yet I do not see them as "angry people". I see a human being who is having some difficulties, as we humans do. Whether it be anger issues, anxiety issues, assertiveness issues, self-esteem issues...(and of course I could go on...) people behave the way they do for a reason. Counselling is an opportunity to pick it apart and help raise the client's awareness of the underlying reasons behind their behaviour and to help them make choices that are more in line with where they want to be.

5 December 2011

Living with Heart - my latest workshop experience

Living with Heart - a Creating Synergies Workshop

I attended the warm and wonderful Gill Wyatt's "Living with Heart - A Practical Spiritual Path" workshop in Exeter on Saturday.  As previously mentioned, I was very excited about going. The emphasis for me was for personal development rather than improving my counselling skills, but actually, I don't think that the two are separate endeavours.

The context of the workshop was that NEW SCIENCE MEETS THE 'WISDOM OF THE HEART' - a look at latest findings in neurocardiology and how they influence our understanding of emotions, our way of being and of the mind/body divide which we in the West seem to have created.

The best parts for me, were the "heart meditations". For the first one we were invited to close our eyes and focus on our breathing, then to connect with our hearts by imagining breathing through them. With this focus we were to think of something that gives us joy and lean in to the experience of it. I had done this exercise before, on a previous "Heart Intelligence" workshop. What happens, for me, and for some others, is that the joy is intensified to the point where it is almost unbearable, and what comes along with that is the pain associated with the joy. My interpretation of this is that the heart equals truth and is the home of the highest joy and the deepest grief. I believe that for most of us, feelings of bliss, joy and love are physically felt in the heart as well as those of grief, pain and loss. Some found difficulty in letting go of "head thoughts" and going "into the heart". It seemed to be an enlightening experience for all, regardless of the personal experience.

There was another exercise where first of all we were to think of a problem we were encountering in life. Next we were encouraged to get back in touch with the joy we'd felt on the previous exercise - referred to by Gill as our "inner smile". From that place, and whilst "breathing  through our hearts" we were then to think of our problem or dilemma from that place and ask our hearts what we need. Anytime we felt stuck we were to recall the inner smile. My personal experience of this was that I got some very insightful advice, "from my heart" and will be taking action accordingly.

Something else I hugely valued from the day was the scientific input. We learned some genuinely fascinating facts about neurocardiology which correlate with ancient wisdom. We were taught about the relevance of Heart Rate Variability to our emotions with negative emotions, such as anger or frustration, showing an erratic reading and a positive feeling, such as appreciation, showing as a sine wave. This latter pattern is referred to as being coherent and it is when our HRV is in the highly ordered sinewave pattern that we feels positive emotions. This phenomenon - which is attributed to our systems being in harmony,  is referred to as Heart Mind Body Coherence (or psychophysiological coherence).

There was a lot more information about the impact of a highly ordered 'coherent" HRV(such as greater synchronisation between the two branches of the autonomic system) and erratic HRV (there is a shift away from the thinking parts of the brains with our reactionary brain taking more control). But I will not go into the science in depth here.

Another interesting fact is that the heart's electromagnetic field extends out approximately 12 foot around us. Neurocardiology is in it's infancy and at the workshop many of us were excited about what was yet to be discovered through future research. The thing is, ancient Eastern wisdom already knows the importance of the heart and the importance of not prioritising mind-thought.

There was all sorts of groovy data which raised many questions about the massive impact these discoveries could make to how we are in the world.

Discussion was had about what it means to "live with heart" and we shared ideas, experiences, fears and hopes. I really enjoyed hearing what the other attendees had to share and I appreciate Gill's style of gently leading in a strong way. She is generous with her approach and likes the process to be 2-way.

I went home very stimulated and with plenty of self-development to be carrying on with...

Gill Wyatt can be contacted via email: gillwyatt@creatingsynergies.com

Link to the website for the Institute of HeartMath

4 December 2011

Sandtray therapy - truly creative expression

I am fortunate enough to have my own sandtray for therapeutic work with clients. I used it with a client last week which has prompted me to share some of my thoughts on the process.

The article above gives some background information on sandtray work. I personally find it is useful for working in areas of "stuckness" with a client, i.e. where the client has reached an impasse on an unresolved and painful issue, often from childhood, e.g. abuse or trauma but could be from later on in life e.g. a painful divorce, death or other trauma. Last week I suggested sandtray work to a client as they were finding it hard to find the words to describe their pain and had some stuckness with a particularly painful childhood issue. This was a perfect scenario for sandtray work as words are not required for expression in this field of therapy as it taps into the unconscious.

It was agreed well in advance when the sandplay session would be - it is important for the client to make space around the session as it can be powerful and evocative.

The trays are a very specific size and shape based on the field of vision. Along with the tray itself is an extensive collection of miniatures of all kinds of shapes and sizes from toy animals, pieces of fabric, jewellery and many other items of bric-a-brac. This really is the client's realm as they select what they are drawn to and are invited to use them with the sand in any way which feels intuitively right for them. This process can take some time and the client may place some objects with no thought required whatsoever then struggle with other items that they feel compelled to include but need time to do justice to the  placement of these items. Eventually, the client will indicate that they are satisfied with the arrangement.

This is a good time to invite the client to share their thoughts on what they have done. It is important not to intrude into their realm, but to tentatively ask questions regarding particular items (no closed questions!) and to notice e.g. "I noticed that you were very decisive with that piece and the piece next to it seems to have been more difficult for you to place. Asking questions to clarify helps the client make sense of the world they have created.  A box of tissue needs to be on standby of course. Whenever I have engaged in this therapy myself I have found it very powerful emotionally and tears are often a natural part of the process.

One thing I have noticed is that time absolutely flies by with this kind of work, so gentle reminders of the time are required and general time management important so as not to rush the client or finish abruptly. It is considered essential for the client to be given the choice to dismantle their own masterpiece - a piece of art in the true sense of being an outward expression of what is going on inside. I always ask if they would like a picture - it could be useful for their personal development or for use in future sessions. The client takes the objects out themselves, although should they prefer, they can leave it for me to do, and swish away any patterns they may have made  in the sand.

During my training there were many cynics among the class who really did not see how playing with sand could be powerful therapy. By the end of an afternoon experimenting on each other most were converts.

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

29 October 2011

Is lying to ourselves the answer?

Unearned self praise can trigger depression

I like this piece of research because it correlates with what I believe about superficial therapies such as CBT and those that tout positive thinking and positive affirmation as the way out of depression. I do think that CBT and NLP have uses for specific behaviours but they won't affect the core beliefs of a person. Worse, positive affirmation may make a person feel worse, according to this research, if what they are trying to instill in themselves contradicts what they actually believe about themselves.

The main issue I have is that I believe that they do not address the reasons for depression and anxiety. People are not depressed or anxious because of the things they think. I believe that people think the
things they do because of underlying, fundamental (and often subconscious) core beliefs such as "I am worthless", "I am not worthy of love" "my needs are not important" and "I only deserve bad things to happen me" (not exhaustive by any means!). These are what leads to depression, not the thought processes that are symptomatic of these core beliefs. I believe that potent counselling will address the underlying causes through the therapeutic relationship.

I also think this piece of research is highly flawed. Basically, whatever you believe, you can find some research to back it up!

24 October 2011

Anger management and person-centred counselling

On Friday evening I attended a workshop on anger management hosted by a lady who works with groups in an NHS setting, delivering CBT-based courses on anger management. It was an interesting evening, particularly for me as a person-centred therapist. There was discussion on how "person-centred" it is to give clients techniques for dealing with their anger, with varying opinions.

Where do I stand? If somebody is struggling with their anger, particularly if it is very destructive, their relationship is on the line or if there is violence involved then I think it is appropriate and responsible of me to use the knowledge I have of anger to offer the client directly pertinent advice. I do believe, however, that this is of limited use and does not address the reasons for the client being in that place. My aim as a therapist is to help the client understand themselves more overall, not just in terms of "their anger" and this, in my experience so far, has led to a huge reduction in their unmanageable feelings of anger (or anxiety, or helplessness...).

30 September 2011

A poem pertinent to counselling - Autobiography in 5 Chapters

by Portia Nelson:

1) I walk down the street.

There is a deep hole in the sidewalk
I fall in.
I am lost — I am hopeless.
It isn't my fault.
It takes forever to find a way out.

2) I walk down the same street.

There is a deep hole in the sidewalk.
I pretend I don't see it.
I fall in again.
I can't believe I'm in the same place.
But it isn't my fault.
It still takes a long time to get out.

3) I walk down the same street.

There is a deep hole in the sidewalk
I see it is there.
I still fall in — it's a habit
My eyes are open
I know where I am
It is MY fault.
I get out immediately.

4) I walk down the same street.

There is a deep hole in the sidewalk
I walk around it.

5) I walk down a DIFFERENT street.

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