Mental health during Covid-19: art-making

This past year has been generous in its offering of chaos and mess. It is so challenging to maintain our mental health during Covid-19.  I will write more soon about mental health in our pandemic, but in this article I share a slice of my personal answer: art-making.

Art-making, for me, is like a mental health vacation. 

In the midst of chaos and messiness are chances to make and create. Get out of the swamp of analysing and over-thinking. Get your hands busy instead!

Join me?

Mental health in covid: art-making....peacock! Mental health in covid: art-making....peacock!

Mental health in covid: art-making....peacock!

 


Inspiration

At first the image that resonated was a phoenix with crazy red feathers, a quirky bird.

A Focusing with art practice I like to do using Eugene Gendlin’s work, led me to my image. You can try that or maybe you have an inkling already.

I knew it had to fly and be 3-dimensional. I also knew I wanted to play with paper mache.

Ever since I’d seen a flying paper-mache sculpture of a woman at a home in Vancouver a decade ago, I’d wanted to make my own flying something. So this is really a decade in the making.

Creation

Once I had a sense of the bird I wanted to make, I started finding images and colour schemes on the internet that inspired me. I found some great photos of flying peacocks. Those helped me visualise and map out the structure of its body.

I started with a bundle of old plastic bags that I taped together to form a body, head and neck. Then I covered that with chicken wire to add structure. Then came the layer of paper mache that could become smooth and paintable. The bird started to form.

I was fortunate to have a friend from my performance troupe who gave me lots of amazing fabric cut offs. After painting it my favourite blue, cutting and sticking began. And it was ever so effective of getting me “away” when I couldn’t get away.

Manifestation

It’s a cheesy word now, but a lot is being manifested in this object. A realised longing to make; a phoenix/peacock who is bold and beautiful; a choice to make something enlivening out of a messy time.

In December 2020 “he” was finished and I was pleased. But where was he to hang?

My husband and I took him around the house to see where he fit the best. As home changes would have it I now had a new office space. In January 2021 he starting flying above my desk.

There is something about the expansive wings, the flamboyant feathers, and the rich blues, turquoises and greens that feel so life-affirming and freeing.

He makes pretty shadows on the walls that create an art dance of his own. He looks out towards the window, ready to fly out, and surprising people who look in. The fourth step should be “interaction”.

And you? Could your mental health during covid use some help?

Inspiration

What do you have a hankering to make? Make time for your dreaming. Try Eugene Gendlin’s Focusing with art (Get in touch and I can lead you if you like). Find images that inspire.

Creation

Be resourceful. Use what you have. Find and re-find the flow. Allow it to change.

Manifestation

Write about what you made, what is significant? Take in your creation. Be changed by it. Share it.

Inspiration: Creation: Manifestation

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Beyond candy: find the juice this Halloween





Has Hallowe’en has become a bit stale? Typically a bit too full of plastic jack o’lanterns and skulls, over-produced costumes and absurd amounts of candy? For me, yes to both. 

This Covid Halloween gives us a chance to shake things up a bit. Perhaps drop the regular expectations and play with something new. Goodness knows we’re all a bit more familiar with our dark sides than we were a year ago.
halloween candy
Drawing on threads from the rich, multi-layered history of Halloween, I offer some ways to enliven this Halloween whilst building relationship with yourself and having some fun.
 
Whilst this is certainly no watertight historical review, most sources I checked say Halloween’s origins include Celtic, Roman and Christian traditions threading back 2000+ years. Many sources link it originally to the Samhein festival of the Celts 2000 years ago. Samhein was a festival marking the end of Celtic year, the drawing in of the harvest at the end of summer and the beginning of winter.

Connecting life and death, dark and light

Samhein (pronounces sow-in) represented the ultimate liminal transition. It was believed that on this day the souls of those who’d died that year travelled into the otherworld.  Other sources say the spirits of the dead came back to play tricks on the living. Regardless, the dead and the living interacted on this day more than any other.

Personally I love this. Rituals like these help us mortals make sense of the process of dying and living.  I also love it because it gives form to an exchange or relationship with the darker sides of our own natures. Possibly those we are more familiar with since the stress of covid has hit!

In Celtic times bonfires were lit to help the dead on their journey and keep them away from the living. The Celtic priests (Druids) were also able to make predictions about the future on this day, which they did during large bonfires where they wore animal skins and sacrificed crops to the spirits.

PART OF THE ANNUAL CELTIC SAMHAIN FESTIVAL AT THE SCOTTISH CRANNOG CENTRE ON LOCH TAY AT KENMORE, PERTHSHIRE. AN ANCIENT CELTIC HALLOWEEN FESTIVAL

A Samhein bonfire in Scotland

It was believed that the souls of the dead were out along with fairies, witches and demons, so offerings of food and drink were left out to placate the souls.  People began dressing as these creatures performing antics in exchange for food and drink, a practice called “mumming”.  A playful way of relating indeed.

This “mumming” and another practice called “a’ soulin” where people begged for sweet breads or “soul cakes” in exchange for prayers for the families’ souls, may have laid the foundations for trick-or-treating. Except now there are notably no tricks. I’m bothered by this every year. Maybe it’s because I grew up in the UK where kids had to have a “trick” up their sleeve as they went out to trick-or-treat.  Now we better just get out the sugar because no one knows what to do with the dark side. Ahem.
samhain moon
To continue with this make-shift history…
In early AD with the Roman invaders, Samhein was influenced by the Roman festival of Feralia – the Roman day to honour the dead. By 800AD the Catholic church, taking a “let’s focus on the light” side,  proclaimed “All Saints Day” to commemorate martyrs and saints on Nov 1st. The term “Hallowe’en” comes from “All Hallows Even” – the day before All Saints Day. Apparently then people who celebrated the “All Saints Day” version dressed up as saints or angels, and those who celebrated Samhein wore the animal skins. Later still men in Scotland would impersonate the dead on the day.

What I like about these stories is that there’s a direct engagement with the spirits or darker forces. A relationship. This is what I’m interested in helping you create.

Find the juice in Hallowe’en: some ideas

Idea 1: Costume…

  1. As you consider what you might like to “be” for Halloween, consider what part of you doesn’t get out much. Is could be your angry side, a wild “F**K IT!” part, a princess part!

  2. In preparation for Halloween find clothes this part might wear and dress up as it.

  3. Give it a name.

  4. Act it out during the evening too – what voice would it use? What would you feel like inside if it took up more space? What posture would it hold? These are hard to act out for extended periods, but you might try it here and there… even in the bathroom on your own!

Idea 2: Explore your shadow.

Take Idea 1 a step further and look at what might be in your unconscious shadow. The shadow in Jungian psychology refers to:

“(1) an unconscious aspect of the personality which the conscious ego does not identify in itself. Because one tends to reject or remain ignorant of the least desirable aspects of one’s personality, the shadow is largely negative, or (2) the entirety of the unconscious, i.e., everything of which a person is not fully conscious. There are, however, positive aspects which may also remain hidden in one’s shadow” (Wikipedia). 

Here are some ideas of how to see your shadow. For more see the links below.

  • What do you get really annoyed about in other people typically?

  • What do you admire most in others? Who are your idols?

  • What behaviours do you end up doing even if you promise yourself you won’t?

Follow steps 2 to 4 from Idea 1 above.

Idea 3: Who has died that you know of this year? Find a way to honour them and what they meant to you. Make a shrine in their honour

Preparation 

  1. In the days before Hallowe’en choose a quiet, relaxing spot in your home. Make a shrine with a little table/raised platform and attractive fabric covering. Gather objects, music, photos that remind you of the deceased. Locate a candle.

  2. Write a letter to the person: what did you appreciate about them? What do you miss? What would you like them to know? Is there anything you had trouble with about them or your relationship that you want to share? Put the letter on the table.

Ritual

  1. Take time to breathe and relax. Light the candle. Put on the music.

  2. Bring the deceased person to mind. Let yourself sift through your memories. Feel whatever feelings are present.

  3. Read or sing out the letter to them.  Say out loud to them how you will remember them. (You can burn the letter if you like).

  4. Wish them well on their way.

  5. Blow out the candle to close.

More on shadow
Owning your own shadow, Robert Johnson (Book)
A 1-hr talk by Robert Johnson (Youtube)

Sources
The History of Halloween, Huffington Post
The Fantasy and Folklore of All Hallows, The American Folklife Centre

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Taking new clients beginning September 15th

I note with a smirk that my last post (dated late February) announced that I was off on parental leave and not accepting new clients. True enough. What a different ride it’s been though than the one I was envisaging.

As planned we welcomed a beautiful daughter (age 9) into our home through adoption. The week after she arrived, everything shut down due to Covid-19, and the Gods laughed at my (very thorough) plans for support during this rather intense family change.

The Gods are laughing
The Gods were laughing

I can smirk now since we’ve come so far as a family, and I’ve learnt so much about parenting a child with a challenging history… what I now know to call “therapeutic parenting“. I feel quite proud of all of us. And now, I’m ever so excited that school in its new form is back, and that I get to re-find my other hats that have been set aside.

May I take a moment to deeply bow to all the families with small children who have made it through, in some shape or form, this immensely challenging time. Everyone has their own story.

So, I’m happy to say I will resume a regular, virtual, practice starting September 15th.

I am able to take some new clients.

While I will offer virtual appointments for now, I am looking into safe ways of allowing in-person visits.

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Practice update

I am currently not accepting new clients. My family and I are happy to announce that we are welcoming a new child into our family in March and I will be taking a modified version of parental leave.

In April I will continue to see existing clients. In May I will assess whether I can take new clients or not. That said I will not be working at full capacity over the summer, so my regular practice will likely restart in September. I will still only be available 9:30 – 3pm.

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Climate change anxiety and what to do about it

In the last year I’ve had my first few client presenting with what boils down at least in significant part, to climate change anxiety.

Source: 3blmedia.com

Clients have been presenting with panic, overwhelm, insomnia, and an incline towards depressive symptoms. Their dominating thoughts and worries are about the hopelessness of the climate situation.

The magnitude of the climate crisis paired with a sense of powerlessness makes these reactions quite reasonable. In fact I along with Greta think that it’s good to panic… for a bit.

Clearly we need to move panic into action and create meaning for our lives rather than letting it slide us into depression. What more awful outcome for the planet than to let those who are concerned become ineffectual?

“Of all the dangers we face, from climate chaos to nuclear war, none is so great as the deadening of our response.” Joanna Macy

I often wonder whether the backdrop of the current political and ecological crisis isn’t a contributor to many people’s experience whether they name it as such or not. Certainly the extent of use of social media seems very tied into anxiety levels though many clients either dismiss the impact or don’t want to change their behaviour.

What can a therapist do?

As any decent therapist I want to know other factors going on, in order to make a therapeutic plan. Some places to explore include:

  • Is there also a history of anxiety stemming from another source?
  • Any history of trauma?
  • How much action related to the climate are they taking?
  • How connected with others are they around this issue? And what impact does this have (helpful/unhelpful)?
  • Are there other reasons they feel stuck in life or hopeless?
  • What internal voices or parts are they aware of around this theme? What relationship did their family of origin have with their environment and climate change, and with action in general? What roles did they have in their family of origin? Were their ideas and action valued?

My goal isn’t to dismiss a client’s climate concerns as they are indeed real. I want to explore in order to understand more about how the individual responds to challenges, and for example how they deal with difficult feelings, whether they can regulate their emotions and use them to inform their thinking. After we broaden the picture we can make specific goals together and move forward.

Ultimately I believe we can use this challenge as a way to understand ourselves and where we get stuck, thus opening the opportunity to evolve individually and in relationship, so that we can be of use collectively.

What do other people say?

Eco-psychology approach

The Open University offers a useful introduction to an eco-psychology approach to climate anxiety (written by Mary-Jayne Rust and David Key). It is simple to read and comes with interesting activities to do with a friend, including sentence stems like:

  • “When I think about what is happening to our world I feel …
  • The feelings I find difficult to tolerate are (e.g. anger, fear, powerlessness, hopelessness, grief, etc.) …
  • The way I deal with these feelings is …
  • What inspires me about living at this time of crisis is …
  • My gift that I have to contribute to this time of crisis is …”

Joanna Macy – The work that reconnects

Joanna Macy PhD is an author, teacher, a scholar of Buddhism, Systems Thinking and Deep Ecology. I strongly recommend her inspiring and hopeful work that reconnects which brings together wisdom from her 6 decades of activism.

“Active Hope is waking up to the beauty of life on whose behalf we can act. We belong to this world” Joanna Macy

The good ol’ BBC – optimism and influence

Perhaps as a Brit I’m biased but I did find some good articles here. BBC Three in the UK has a series on eco-anxiety including Eco-anxiety: How to spot it and what to do about it. In this article Owen Gaffney, author of a climate action paper says “Eco-anxiety is the right response to the scale of the challenge. But I am an optimist. We live in an age where individuals have more power than at any time in history. Look at your sphere of influence – employer, networks, family – and influence them. We don’t need to convince 100% of people, only 25%, then an idea can go from marginal to mainstream.”

Duncan Geere who edited the report points to the action we can take: “Firstly, make climate change a factor in the decisions you make around what you eat, how you travel, and what you buy. Secondly, talk about climate change with your friends, family and colleagues. Finally, demand that politicians and companies make it easier and cheaper to do the right thing for the climate.”

Flight shame and train bragging: Apparently these are new popular terms originated by the Finns as explained in another good BBC article. #jagstannarpåmarken for example translates as #istayontheground.

Managing your well-being: free advice

As with any manifestation of anxiety, basic self care is fundamental. Check out anxiety counselling for info on symptoms and approaches.

  • Check the basics: food, water, sleep and exercise. Without these building blocks nothing much else can help.
  • What are you doing that brings joy to your life? What quality social connection time you’re getting? What impact are you having on those around you?
  • Consider the impact of your social media time and your connection with your widget. Is it enhancing life or increasing stress? There is such a thing as too-much-information and we have to be the ones to create strong boundaries for ourselves here, cos facebook ain’t going to.
  • Consider reducing your on-line time and increasing your in-nature time (have you tried a forest bath!)
  • What other practices support the state of mind that you’re after? Find some of my ideas in 5 Unusual ways to reduce stress.

In terms of self-regulation tools, check out my post on the polyvagal ladder, and a simple qi gong practice that I love.

Get involved! Groups in Hamilton Ontario

Please feel free to add other resources in the comments section.

One of my ways of taking action. Friday 27th Sept 2019, Hamilton, Ontario.
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The polyvagal “ladder” and how it can help you





I’ve been learning lately about polyvagal theory, developed by Stephen Porges. I find it to be a really clear and helpful way of thinking about our feeling states that can give us more agency to feel better.

The theory is based on Porges’ research of  the vagus nerve, a nerve with several branches that wanders from the brain to the internal organs below the diaphragm and also up into the face. Consequently the name vagus comes from the latin for vagrant or wanderer.

Story follows state

Polyvagal theory shows that from the moment of birth our autonomic nervous system, without us thinking about it, is constantly scanning for signs of safety or danger. This scanning process is called neuroception.

What I find particularly interesting is that Porges has shown that neuroception happens before perception. This means that it happens automatically prior to any conscious awareness.

The Autonomic Ladder

A neuroception of safety brings us into a ventral vagal state, at the top of the “ladder”. This is a state of social engagement and connection. From this state you might say the world is a safe place and describe yourself as happy, active and interested. As Porges says, story follows state.

The polyvagal ladder, adapted by Deb Dana. Source: NICABM.

If something happens to alert us to danger (e.g. you are driving and you hear police car sirens, your boss asks for a meeting in a stern tone), we go into a sympathic nervous system state of mobilisation. This is the state of fight or flight and is evolutionarily linked to mammals. We feel adrenalin, feel anxious or angry and ready for action. The world may feel dangerous, chaotic, unfriendly. You may feel you need to protect yourself.

Going down a step on the ladder, if we sense signs of extreme danger, neurologically we go into the dorsal vagal state of immobilisation. Think of a turtle drawing its head inside its shell. You might feel frozen, numb, not here, alone, hopeless. From here the world is not safe.

Shifting states

Throughout the day we shift through these states. We work our way up and down the ladder. Some of us live mostly in the ventral vagal zone, but others, often due to adverse life circumstances and trauma, tend to spend more time further down the ladder and have a harder time “climbing” up.

The more time we spend on different points on the ladder, the more we’re likely to get stuck in negative patterns.  Porges even suggests we develop related physical symptoms.

Polyvagal-informed therapy offers tools to help you be closer to the top of the ladder, more of the time. In Deb Dana’s excellent book, The Polyvagal Theory in Therapy which informs this article, there many tools for mapping out your own nervous system ladder, including how you can help yourself climb up the ladder.

How can this theory help you?

Understanding your nervous system in this way can change the way you think of these states in yourself.  Therefore there can be less self-judgement and more compassion for your state.

By recognising what state you are in a given moment, and understanding how you shift between states, you can change your state so you can feel connected and safer more of the time.  You can feel less hopeless when you’re in the dorsal vagal shut down state, as you’ll know ways to help yourself out of it. You can also more easily enlist the help of others in this, since as mammals we need connection with others to feel safe.

This theory, as I mentioned above, is especially relevant for those with trauma in their background. A trauma history often creates a hyper- or hypo-vigilant state, where either one is scanning for safety all of the time, and one can interpret neutral events or interactions as threatening ones, or one is shut down and depressed. This is a natural result of trauma as our nervous systems have had to protect us against danger, and have now got used to that protection mode. The good news is that through positive connections (and possibly some therapy) we can help retrain the nervous system to be able to relax and feel safe.

For more information read Deb Dana’s article A Beginner’s Guide to Polyvagal Theory. Dana also has worksheets available but do check her guidelines first from her other writing to make it safe and to get the full benefit of the exercises. I would also be happy to help you complete your own maps.

Much of the embodied work I specialise in helps regulate nervous system states to bring you “up the ladder”. See the following articles for examples of this.

Related articles

If you’re interested in working with me, get in touch!

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Using Internal Family Systems parts-work with an overwhelmed parent!

I’ve been studying Internal Family Systems (a modality developed by Richard Swartz) lately. Today I decided to practice this new parts work on myself, to help get to the bottom of a familiar (and unhelpful) reaction in myself.

What follows is an example of what’s called work with a protector part. A “protector” is part of us that protects us against difficult feelings or experience. If it’s in charge it could result in shutting down or getting mad (defences),  getting busy, drinking or other addictive behaviour (coping mechanisms) or other strategies or adaptions you might employ unconsciously.

One key piece about Internal Family Systems that I need to mention before I begin, is the idea of the self or self-energy. We all have this inherently and this is the aspect that helps us heal and integrate. We are in connection with this self when we feel curious, calm, compassionate and aware.

Here we go

The piece that I am choosing today is a familiar inner struggle, perhaps shared by other parents. It’s the version of me that gets stern and harsh with my child sometimes, when really I want to stay in a “kind, firm, not emotionally-loaded” place.

  1. Find the target part. My chosen part to work with today is my part that gets very busy, very serious and quite harsh, with myself and with others around me. When I say find it, I personally find an image of it. So my image is of a small but fuming and feverishly working picture of me.
  2. How do I feel towards it? First off I feel annoyed, but there’s also some understanding… like, “yes, of course this is overwhelming”. So I try to build the understanding, curious part.
  3. Let the part know that you understand it, and perhaps are concerned about it. I let my part know that and it starts to get sad and feel softer.
  4. Let it share what it wants to about its experience with you. It says it feels panicked and scared and that this is all too much. It also says if I don’t do all of this work, no one else will.
  5. I ask it what it’s afraid of if it doesn’t do all this. It says there’ll be chaos, entropy, my child will take over. I probe… what would happen then? I’m afraid of having no control, no power, even not existing… not having my way. [This gives a sense of what my busy, serious part is protecting me from].
  6. I ask the part if it likes it’s job. It says no way, it’s stressful, but there’s no one else to do it.
  7. I ask where did it learn to do this job. It feels familiar from how my Dad was with me.
  8. I say I can help it with that no power, no control, not existing feeling, so that it doesn’t have to get so harsh. I have to sit for a while with the part to let it start to believe this. I ask if that harsh part willing to step back so I can talk with the afraid part? This naturally seems to have happened inside anyway, and the harsh protector is happy to step back.
  9. I check “who” is there now that protector has stepped back. There is an uncomfortable powerless feeling. Aha! [The work is now to be with the “exile”, in my case the powerless feeling. This stage involves building trust between the “I” or the self and the exile, witnessing the exile’s experience, unburdening, and retrieving that part if/when it’s ready.]

That’s got to be for another day since I have to pick up my son now! But having done that process I feel softer, lighter, and more emotionally open. And the house is still a mess, but from this state I can take care of it from a kinder place.

I’d be happy to walk you through an Internal Family System’s process like this for yourself if you are interested. Get in touch! 

For more on Internal Family Systems (IFS) see Derek Swartz’s Centre for Self Leadership. I also like this introduction to the IFS process offered by Ontario-based therapist Derek Scott.

Related posts:

Posted in Anxiety, Mindfulness-based psychotherapy, Parenthood, Stress | Leave a comment

Trauma-informed yoga: upcoming classes

My colleague Andrea Towler is starting up a range of new trauma-informed yoga classes. She is a kind and calm teacher with a depth of practice and knowledge. I recommend her classes for those with a history of trauma who are also in therapy. Find out more at Healing Together Yoga.

Andrea’s work builds on mindfulness skills such as those I mention in Mindfulness tools for everyday sanity and one of my favourite qi gong movement practices. Approaches that integrate movement and body awareness into healing are so important especially for trauma survivors.

“Healing Together provides hope, support and a holistic approach to healing from trauma.  It integrates the time-tested wisdom of classical yoga philosophy with an evidence based mindful movement practice and current research in the field of trauma. Healing Together offers workshops and private sessions for individuals healing from trauma as well as training for yoga teachers and service providers.”

https://www.healingtogetheryoga.com

Upcoming classes

“Once your abuser stops abusing you, who continues the abuse?’ was a central reflection at the sweatlodge which formed the core of my spiritual practice for many years. Speaking to the violence inherent in abuse or attachment trauma, as well as the more insidious internalization of violence that can occur as a result of abuse and trauma, this question allows us to recognize and challenge the self-destructive tendencies which occur as a result of internalized violence.” Andrea Towler

In Andrea’s courses you can learn more about how to practice (rather than just think about) self-compassion, something I’m relying on more and more in my work with clients.

Enjoy!

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Mindfulness tools for everyday sanity





Amidst the stresses of daily life it’s all too easy to get caught on the hamster wheel of activities and forget to get off. We can get hijacked by stress and loose the capacity to think clearly. Here I share what I think of as 101 Being Human; basic skills in mindfulness or self-awareness that we all can forget, or perhaps are learning them for the first time.

I think of these mindfulness tools as is the basis of self-care. Stepping stonesSelf-care is not necessarily an expensive and/or time-intensive activity. Self-care is being interested and attentive to how you actually are, to what you might need, and responding to that.

If you are parenting a young child, or are a caregiver, these things are even more essential.

Mindfulness tools and tips

Preemptive self-care:

  1. Pause. Make pauses throughout your day even as you juggle or rush. Even now, just stop whatever you’re doing and pause.  Perhaps it feels good to take a breath, or to relax your shoulders. Jump off the hamster wheel for a moment.
  2. Check-in. Take time to check in with yourself. It can just be a few moments. Stressors can pile up in no time and if we don’t check-in and take care of ourselves we can end up unknowingly with a headache or in a bad mood. That’s the time we end up acting in ways we regret later. So here are some steps to help you sort out how you are.

    1. Body: Ask how is my body doing right now? Areas of tightness? Areas of ease? Just notice what you’re drawn to and let it be.
    2. Breath: Ask how is my breath right now? Shallow? Full? Jaggedy? Smooth? Again notice the quality of breath. Often just noticing it invites a fuller breath naturally. It’s easier to relax when we breath more fully.
    3. Mind: Ask What am I thinking about right now? What mode is my mind in?Planning? Dreamy? Worrying?
    4. Feelings: Ask into the body how am I feeling right now? You may not know at first, that’s okay. Just stay with yourself, paying attention. If a “something” emerges hang out with it. Be patient, feelings often have layers, so stay with it a while.
    5. Overall, how am I? Once you’ve checked into this various areas you’ll be in a better place to answer the question. Then you can take action.

It can be hard to remember to check in with yourself so you could make sticky notes and put them in strategic places.

For a more in depth version of the checking in process see Focusing Steps. See The story of the upside down bird for an example of a session using Focusing.

When you get overwhelmed or are starting to behave unhelpfully:

  1. Orient yourself to your body and surroundings. When we get overwhelmed our emotional brain (limbic system) has taken over. (More about the emotional brain in this article.)
    1. To get the clear thinking part of the brain back online one of the fastest ways is to feel your feet, or whatever is touching the ground or seat. Notice your weight pushing down. Feel the sensations of the contact with the seat/floor.  Put your attention there and take deeper belly-breaths.
    2. Look around – notice what’s around you. What do you see? What do you hear? Check out the 54321 exercise.
  2. If you can’t calm yourself then and there, stop whatever you are doing and leave the situation to take the time you need. Try to tell whoever is there that you need time to cool off and you’ll be back. Then come back and repair.

Be kind to yourself in all this. It takes practice to change habits. It’s hard to be human sometimes! We all struggle at times.

Read my Chicken dance wisdom article where I describe my own flounderings with my reactivity in parenting, and try to apply a pause and some playfulness. Believe me it’s an ongoing process!

We can learn by practicing, by talking things out, by seeking help. You can also check out my article 5 unusual ways to reduce stress. 

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The eel and the axe-man: a therapy session





A man in his mid-life came for counselling to help with anger that wells up inside him playing certain sports. He had a sense that it’s deep and old anger. After the first session he no longer experienced it in the same venue so it wasn’t so much a “make this anger go away” agenda as a “what is going on inside” query.

My sense was that this was someone who could hold his experience and not get violent. He also did not have violence in his history, so I offered a somatic approach based in Focusing and Internal Family Systems. Here is what happened in one appointment. I offer it to demonstrate how we can work in an embodied way using imagery that comes from the client, to do direct work that leads to palpable shifts in state that would not be possible by only talking about an issue, in this case the man’s anger. 

I invite my client to notice what happens in his body as he remembers some things that get him mad. He notices a tightly coiled sensation in his belly. He makes a connection between that and stomach troubles that sometimes keep him up at night. We return to the sensation.

The image that comes is of a terrifying eel, twisting and turning in his belly. His sense is it wants to devour him. He is surprised by the intensity of this and confused. He wants to know how to get rid of it. With his consent we go back to the body.

I ask what else happens in his body or experience as the eel is there? There’s a wish to destroy it. We hang out with that part that wants it gone. We get to know it a bit. The image that comes is of a younger version of himself: a feisty, scared part that wants to control the eelit since it’s not normal and shouldn’t be there. The young man is wielding an axe with which he wants to dismember the eel. I offer some empathy towards that part and it slowly calms down. It gets to express some of it’s concerns.

After a while I ask what that axe-wielding might do if he didn’t have to guard against the eel so vigilantly. He said he would go travel, and my client looked quite pleased. The young man was also concerned still about the eel and it wasn’t safe to go (we hadn’t done much work with the eel itself yet). So I asked the wiser, bigger part of my client what he sees as needed.

Something shifted quickly in my client and he looked at me bewildered: “he just put the axe down and walked away, and then… the eel swam away too.  They were co-dependent”. He is incredulous. 

He explains that what needed to happen was that this part hasn’t grown up but needed to. As soon as he thought that it did grow up started showing a bit of grey hair. The main piece for him though was that he realised it was that the young man was turned towards the light, or the good in life, and that’s what was helping, not actually holding the axe. So then it was automatic for the  part to put down the axe. My client said he then felt a shift and the Hebraic words for “Heal the world” came to him. He became very quiet inside.  

My client took himself through this last part in an organic flow it seemed. To conclude I suggested offering the young man part some thanks for his time protecting him, and for showing up and relating with him in this session.  By the end the eel had shifted form and become part of his intestines in a gentle way. The tension in his stomach was gone. 

This was clearly a very experiential session where something shifted. I don’t think either of our conscious brains knew what exactly these forces were, but we stayed present and what needed to happen happened, or at least that’s the way I see it.

In another session we could explore the eel energy a little more if indeed it’s there. Or perhaps look more at the experience of turning towards the light and how that has served him in his life and how it might continue to do so. What was significant to me about this session was that a fight between parts that was getting him stuck in anger had been released. 

Posted in Anger Management, Creativity, Mindfulness-based psychotherapy | Leave a comment