Walk yourself happier: 7 ways in which walking can help your mental health

Pause for a minute. Imagine that you’re in a wood. It’s quite light and open, with space between the trees……those beautiful, spreading oak trees, with great branches like arms that reach out as if to enfold you in a safe embrace.

mental health support by walking - Lucy Hyde - counselling for depression

The sun filters through the leaves, dappling the ground below, and playing on your face. As you move you pass through shafts of light. You can feel its warmth. Pay attention to the sounds you can hear – the rustle of the wind moving the branches of the trees, the twittering of song from birds, invisible, in the canopy above you. As you walk along, you hear the scrunch of twigs and fallen leaves under your feet.

What’s that smell? Fresh and musty at the same time – damp earth and vegetation; perhaps it rained earlier or there was a heavy dew. And then behind that, a sweet perfume that comes and goes – you see a carpet of blue under the trees. Thousands of bluebells, their delicate smell massed together to reach your nose. Just take a moment to see, hear, feel all of that wonderful space of nature, to let it sink in to you. Let it feed your soul. Take a moment – before you come back.

Why walk?

When I was thinking about writing this blog, I imagined how I would describe why I like to walk outside. Everything I thought of seemed rather worthy……walking as something I ‘should’ be doing, part of that ‘must get your 5-a-day’ mentality. But when I thought of a recent walk – outlined above – I recalled all the myriad, tiny, experiences that happened in the moment, which combined to lift my spirits and nourish my soul.

mental health support by walking - Lucy Hyde - therapy for depression

That particular walk was an immersion in nature. Spaces like that are available to most of us, though to really get away from it all can be a challenge, especially if you live in a city or don’t have a car. But that doesn’t mean we can’t experience nature while walking – even in the town. In this blog I look at some of the ways in which walking, and walking in nature, can benefit your mental health.

7 ways in which walking can help your mental health

1. Walking helps your whole body

The most fundamental reason for walking helping your mental health, is that it helps your physical health. Our mind and body are intertwined – literally, given that the mind rests within the body.

I mentioned in my last blog (10 Stress Management tips) about the benefits of walking if you suffer from stress symptoms. Walking can help release some of the fight/flight hormones that build up when you’re feeling stressed. The simple act of moving in this way helps release the tension in muscles that may have become hunched and stiff. As you start to become more physically active, you will feel fitter and stronger, which can have the knock-on effect of improving how you feel about yourself. Remember, though – you are not competing against anyone. This is about you feeling better for your own sake.

2. Walking can reduce symptoms of depression

mental health support by walking - Lucy Hyde - online therapy for anxiety

Physical activity stimulates the release of endorphins, which can boost your mood in two ways. Firstly, endorphins stimulate a positive feeling similar to the effects of morphine; with vigorous exercise this can produce a ‘runner’s high’, feelings of euphoria – but even with mild to moderate exercise the effect can still be noticed and can produce an energised feeling, so that, counter-intuitively, getting exercise can give you the feeling that you have more energy to tackle other tasks. The second way in which endorphins can help, is that they diminish the perception of pain – so if you are experiencing pain (assuming it’s not linked to the activity of walking) then the release of endorphins has an analgesic effect which can help reduce the discomfort you experience.

3. Walking can help you manage your thinking

Walking seems to help my brain work differently. That’s my experience – that somehow the act of movement stimulates my mind to work in a different way, and so if I’ve been ruminating about something where my thoughts just go round and round the same circuit, getting out there moving somehow shifts them off the train tracks (I’m not saying they never jump back on again, but a little derailing does help).

This may be because doing something physical requires a certain amount of attention by the brain – even if it seems pretty much instinctive – and therefore there’s a shift in focus which reshuffles everything else that’s going on in there. Indeed, as well as stimulating endorphins, as mentioned above, walking can alleviate the impact of cortisol – the stress hormone – by allowing its release through the body, which can reduce anxiety symptoms such as racing or intrusive thoughts.

4. Walking puts you in a different space

Well, duh, of course it does! It makes sense that the environment that you’re in is going to have an effect on your mood. Just think for a moment about how you’d feel if you’re sitting in a room with no windows and the walls painted grey, compared to sitting in a sunny space with a view over a sparkling sea. Where you are can also have less obvious effects connected to your (sometimes unconscious) associations – perhaps being in your house recalls a big argument that you just had with someone close to you, or all the maintenance tasks that you need to get done, for example.

mental health support by walking - Lucy Hyde - online counselling for depression

Ideally I’d transport myself into the bluebell wood I mentioned earlier, in the blink of an eye. But it doesn’t need to be that extreme a contrast. Shifting yourself out of the space that you’re in can help shift your mindset. You can try this by simply going outside and consciously imagining those worries or preoccupations lifting off your shoulders and floating off into the greater space that surrounds you. I’m not pretending that they’re going to be gone forever, but allowing their release for even a short period of time can help boost your mood and improve your resilience to deal with them when they return.

5. Walking can help you connect with others

Walking with someone can give you the opportunity to talk about things that are bothering you in a neutral environment. For some people, ‘being alongside’ as they talk can be easier than talking about a difficult subject face to face. It can be a really helpful way of offloading – as with the last point, you can ‘let all this stuff out’ into the wider space rather than in the confines of a room. Or the flipside – when you’re walking with someone it’s OK not to talk, too, and just being in company with someone can improve your psychological health by meeting your need for human contact. Humans are social animals and we need to connect.

Walking can be a way of making new contacts and friends – for example through walking groups. There are many of these around the country geared to all ages and abilities, for example, where I live there is a fantastic local organisation that runs wellbeing walks. There’s some links at the bottom of this article.

At a basic level, walking helps you connect with others, in the opportunity it gives to say hello, smile, nod to the people that you pass as you’re out. Even these little contacts have a positive effect on your wellbeing and to a fundamental need for recognition by others.

6. Walking can help you connect with yourself

mental health support by walking - Lucy Hyde - therapy for anxiety

In contrast to the social benefits, walking can also help you to soothe yourself. Getting out for a walk allows the opportunity to take some time for yourself and pay attention to how you are away from the hurly-burly of whatever else is going on in your day. This isn’t just about escaping from stressful situations by absenting yourself from them – although that may also be relevant – but more about taking a few moments to notice how you are, in the moment, as you walk.

Walking can give you a chance to be mindful, for example by bringing your attention to the movement of your arms, legs, feet, and noticing any stiff or sore points. By walking mindfully you can connect to the environment around you, as well as your body, and give yourself a rest, even briefly, from what’s going on in your head. There’s a link to a mindful walking exercise below.

7. Walking can be a way for you to commit to caring for yourself

There is lots of information around on how exercise is good for you mentally and physically……‘not getting enough exercise’ can become another stick for us to beat ourselves up with. But equally, the way we exercise often changes through our lives as our bodies change, and sometimes it is only when we experience an injury that we realise that our bodies aren’t machines that we can just keep on pushing.

Walking is a non-aggressive way of getting exercise. It gets the heart going, the blood pumping, the limbs moving, and with less impact on your joints and muscles than running or working out in the gym. It can help you sleep better, especially with the added effect of getting out in the fresh air. As we age, and if we have other added issues (physical or emotional), our bodies take longer to recover from illness or injury. You’re less likely to experience an injury when out walking than with most other forms of exercise. Yes, you might want to run a marathon – but perhaps your body isn’t ready for that yet. Rather than noticing what you can’t do, in walking perhaps you could look after your body; by valuing your body you are sending a subliminal message to yourself that you are important.

mental health support by walking - Lucy Hyde - online therapy for anxiety

The equality of walking

Walking is cheap. It doesn’t require a gym membership. You don’t need to be an athlete. A little is better than none. If you’re a wheelchair-user you can still get the benefits of being outside, though you may not have as much opportunity for physical exertion. Even in a city you can connect with the natural world…….through gardens, and trees, and birds.

It’s important to recognise that you may not be well enough, physically or mentally, to walk at the moment, in which case reading this blog may well be frustrating! If this is the case the last thing I want to do is add to your burden. Walking isn’t possible for everyone, and if you’re not sure, I suggest you check with your GP. There are other ways that you can look after yourself and prioritise your needs, to your own level of physical, mental and emotional ability right now, and listening to your body may the best way to get some clue as to what those ways might be.

How can I motivate myself to walk?

With the above in mind, if you’re not walking at the moment and would like to but are struggling to find time or motivation to do it, here are some suggestions:

  • Be realistic and start small. Don’t push yourself to get out for an hour’s walk every day. If time pressures are a factor, start by fitting small walks into your day – 5 minutes after lunch, or getting off the bus a stop early.
  • Do it with someone else. Buddy up with a friend or join a group if you think making a plan with someone else will help motivate you. I’m hoping to launch a walk-and-talk therapy service soon, to offer the option of counselling while walking.
  • Focus on you. Don’t compare yourself with what others are doing. You don’t need to compete with anyone – even yourself. Take each day as it comes. One day where you get out for a walk is one day more than none!
  • Most importantly – be kind to yourself. Sometimes you won’t feel like going outside your door, and if that happens allow yourself to recognise that that is just one day, and that tomorrow may well be different.
mental health support by walking - Lucy Hyde - online therapy for depression

If I reflect for a moment on what walking means to me, so many things come up. When I walk I have space to get a little distance from whatever is going on, right now, in my life. Sometimes small things that I experience while I’m out walking can make a real difference to my day – hearing the first swifts of the summer screaming overhead, for example, can bring me a fleeting moment of joy that I reflect on throughout the day.

I feel connected to the rest of the world by the response of my senses to what’s around me, whether that be the sound of the sea or the taste of wild garlic I pick for my dinner. I feel connected to people, partly through encountering them when I’m walking, but also because some walks trigger memories of other people in my life, including those no longer alive, and for that I am grateful. All these myriad, sometimes tiny, sometimes fleeting experiences as I walk combine to……to what? Well, usually, to make me feel, in some way, better.

mental health support by walking - Lucy Hyde - counselling for anxiety

Information & resources:

Find a walking group via the Ramblers.

Wellbeing walks in East Lothian.

Mindful walking practice.

Physical activity and mental health.

Walking for health minds.

10 Stress Management tips: go easy on yourself with some simple ideas

Getting stressed about stress management?

Searching online for ‘stress management’ brings up A LOT of advice and tips. Sometimes in itself that can be stress-inducing – “Oh bloody hell all the things I should be doing / need to do before I’ll feel better!” – which can add to the sense of pressure we feel.

My aim is to, first of all, reassure you that stress responses are normal – there isn’t anything wrong with you; and secondly, to remind you that you can do something about how you feel, and it’s OK to start small. You don’t need to get self-care right all the time. If you’re feeling stressed, the last thing you need is to think that there is yet another thing you have to fit into your day, or ‘get on top of’.

What is stress?

Well, it’s a bit hard to define because the word stress is used to describe both a cause and a symptom. People talk about being under stress, or feeling stressed, or having workplace stress. What I mean here by stress is the reactions that we have to what we perceive (consciously or unconsciously) as difficult or challenging situations or environments.

10 Stress Management tips - LucyHydetherapy - counselling for stress in Edinburgh

Stress symptoms are the body’s reaction to feeling threatened, when hormones are released that allow it to act so as to prevent getting hurt – the ‘fight/flight’ response. The heart rate increases, muscles tense ready for action, blood pressure rises (to get the blood where it needs to go), breathing speeds up. But there are very few situations in the modern world where we need to fight a bear or escape from a lion, so while a stress response causing you to slam on the brakes to stop hitting a bus is useful, a stress response to being asked to work an extra shift at work isn’t. Those tense muscles and racing heart become a problem when they can’t find an outlet.

What causes a stress reaction in one person may not affect another. Look at two people in one workplace doing the same job; one of them might not be able to sleep at night because of work stress; the other might be quite happy to go home at the end of the day and forget completely about work until 9am the next morning.

I’m not saying that if you feel stressed by work you’re somehow to blame – after all, maybe you work for a shitty employer. Maybe you work in a very pressured environment and there are lots of stressors around you. Maybe there’s just a hell of a lot going on in your life. But – you can cultivate a different attitude to most stressors. It doesn’t remove the pressures around you, but crucially, it helps you feel better – you’re alleviating stress.

Me and stress – old friends

10 Stress Management tips - Lucy Hyde - online counselling for stress

What do I know about it? Well, I’ve a history of stress – essentially workplace stress, I guess, though I never defined it. My feelings of stress, as they built up, became intertwined with anxiety and depression, and my typical pattern would be to withdraw when I felt under pressure. I felt that contact with other people would prevent me from being able to hide that I wasn’t coping and I needed to maintain control at all costs. ‘Coping’ is a key word here; clearly I was coping – in that I was still functioning day-to-day – but ‘coping’ wasn’t a happy place.

I would overthink things – trying to think myself out of a situation; I would distract myself thinking I might ‘forget’ how rubbish I felt; and I sort of lived in fear of the future, feeling that things could only get worse. Every now and then I would have a meltdown when the rigid keep-clinging-on-at-all-costs shell just couldn’t hold it in any longer, and that would give a brief relief until things started building up again.

The knowledge that other people, working in the same, demanding, environment as me WEREN’T stressed didn’t help; understanding it was my problem that I needed to do something about – no matter how supportively expressed – added to my sense that I really wasn’t able to function properly as an adult.

How I de-stressed myself

So how did I change it? Various things – too many to remember. Some were small, but there was something about getting a little movement that started the ‘change’ ball rolling, until over time it gathered momentum.

10 Stress Management tips - Lucy Hyde - counselling for stress in Edinburgh

I asked for help. I went to the doctor and got a prescription for anti-depressants. To this day I don’t know how much of the effect was the drug and how much the realisation that I could ask for help, but my mood lifted enough that I was able to make use of a great CBT workshop with a local community organisation, which helped me look at how my thought patterns would get into a downward spiral – and how reflecting on these could help shift me out of disaster mode. This worked for a while, and when I slipped back again it didn’t take me as long to reach out – I’d done it before. I started to talk to people about how I was feeling – even my family!

There were a couple of major events that happened in my life which jolted me enough to shift my priorities slightly – stressors in themselves, but they pushed me to check the reality of how much what I was stressing about really mattered. I was also lucky to have really solid support from my partner.

And then, longer-term, I was offered the opportunity of a counselling skills course and that pushed the ‘change ball’ onto a different path. Surprisingly, I found it OK that I had an extra thing in my week – because it shifted my focus slightly, and some of the other stuff began to look a bit smaller.  

The greater understanding that I had of how I dealt with problems enabled me not only to make slight changes, but crucially my own therapy also helped me notice when I was giving it that double-whammy of beating myself up for beating myself up! Psychotherapy training is great for helping you understand the ‘why’, but in personal counselling I started to heal the anxious child within me, who made those decisions to protect me, and I supported them to make different ones. 

It’s that which has enabled me to look after myself for no other reason than because I AM IMPORTANT. And even being able to write that in a blog is a sign of what a change there has been. I’m not going to pretend I never feel stressed now. But I recognise it and I take steps and I feel better sooner.  I take some of the small steps that I’ve outlined below and in doing so it reinforces the commitment I’ve made to look after myself.

STOP right there!

10 Stress Management tips - Lucy Hyde - counselling for stress

It can be the hardest thing to STOP! To stop and take stock. Stress can produce a sense of an unstoppable hamster-wheel that speeds up and escalates and encourages you to believe that if you can only do MORE, run FASTER, work HARDER then you’ll feel more in control. But stopping really can help. If you’ve stopped long enough to read this blog: Well done! That’s a start!

The 10 stress management tips I’m sharing here are things which help me. I hope some of them may be useful for you.

Stress Tip No. 1: Manage your time gently

When you feel stressed you might have a sense that there’s just not enough time to get things done. But often we contribute to this by setting ourselves to-do lists that are simply unachievable in the misguided idea that we’ll get more done that way, and this adds to the sense of pressure.

The sense of achievement at having successfully met a goal can be energising, and the positive attitude gained from this leads to us being more ready for the next task. So, if you are a list person, write your normal to-do list. Then put aside HALF the items on it; given that you won’t have time to do them anyway, they can be moved to another day.

Stress Management tip No 1 - Lucy Hyde - online counselling for stress

Then take ONE most important item from the list and focus on that at your most productive time of day. For me, this is first thing in the morning before coffee-time. For others it might be in the evening. But the most important thing deserves your most attentive time.

If you still didn’t manage everything on your halved to-do list – golly, you’re really putting pressure on yourself. Try cutting it down further. Be a bit gentler with yourself, huh? You’re only human.

Stress Tip No. 2: Practice saying No

This is a tough one for a lot of people. I get that, it’s hard for me too. And it’s hard because most of us know that this is an essential skill; when we say No we might feel guilty, when we don’t say No we feel ‘bad at self-care’.

Stress Management tip No 2 - Lucy Hyde - counselling for stress

So I don’t want to dwell on the validity of saying No – that actually, only saying Yes to the things that we have time and inclination to do well is better both for us and the person asking us. Instead I’m suggesting that you notice what you could have said No to, and reflect on how you might say No next time, and that you start with the small stuff, those you feel ‘least guilty’ about. Saying No to small requests might feel it won’t make that much difference to your stress levels, but the important thing is getting yourself in the habit.

And when you say No, don’t make excuses why. At the very most just say “No, I’m sorry, but I can’t.” You don’t need excuses to look after yourself.

Stress Tip No. 3: Slow your breathing

Stress Management tip No 3 - Lucy Hyde - online therapy for stress

Breathing deeply is beneficial for releasing stress, partly because the ‘fight or flight’ mode that we find we’re in if we’re stressed tenses everything up and we end up breathing high in the chest. However, taking deep belly breaths can be almost impossible for some people if they’ve got out of practice doing this, and it can actually be triggering for some people who have a history of trauma.

Instead, start by focusing on slowing your breath. Deep breathing can come later. Next time you’re feeling under pressure, stop for a moment. If necessary set an alarm on your phone for 5 minutes. You can afford 5 minutes.

  • Sit back in your chair with your feet flat on the floor and your hands in your lap.
  • Close your eyes, or look down at your hands.
  • Imagine yourself somewhere that you find peaceful or relaxing.
  • Breathe in for a count of four, then out for a count of four.
  • Notice the feeling of the breath moving in through the nose and out through the mouth.
  • Repeat.
  • If you find your mind drifting to your to-do list, just notice that, and say “Yep, I know you’re there” and then bring it back to that peaceful place.

Stress Tip No. 4: Drink water

Dehydration can increase levels of cortisol (the stress hormone). Essentially dehydration is stressful for the body because it’s deprived of what it needs to function well. Dehydration affects the flow of blood to the brain which can lead to feeling fatigued. Sometimes we can also mistake hunger for thirst – so if you feel like you need a snack to keep going, take a drink of water first.

Stress Management tip No 4 - Lucy Hyde - therapy for stress in Edinburgh

Perhaps you forget to stop long enough in your busy day to even notice that you’re thirsty. So before you settle down to work, get yourself a big glass of water and put it somewhere within your line of vision. That way you’re more likely to notice it’s there. If you work on the run, take a bottle and set an alarm on your phone to remind you to take a drink. Even stopping for the few seconds it takes to reach out and take a sip will shift your body position slightly, which is good too.

Stress Tip No. 5: Reflect on what you ‘need’ rather than what you ‘should’

What do I mean by this? Well, one of the things that we can put ourselves under pressure with, is all the things we think we should be doing. I look out for that word ‘should’, because it’s a real signal that someone is self-critical and has high expectations of themselves. Next time you think to yourself “I should be doing X”, reword it to “I COULD be doing X” – this way there’s less of a burden on you.

Stress Management tip No 5 - Lucy Hyde - online therapy for stress

Then ask yourself if you WANT to do it. Ditch one ‘should’ from your week and add one thing that you enjoy – whether that be spending time alone, or spending time with people – whatever you need. Trust your instinct and if you hear a little voice saying you’re being selfish, say “I hear that you think I’m being selfish and that makes you feel anxious. Right now I’m looking after myself.” Because you are.

Stress Tip No. 6: Take a walk

The symptoms of stress are a flight or fight response which is geared towards activity – preparing you to run away or to defend yourself. Often people find that a really good workout after a stressful day can release a lot of the tension they were feeling.

Stress Management tip no 6 - Lucy Hyde - online counselling for stress

The thing is, we can get caught up in what we’re constantly being told about optimum levels of exercise. All I want to say here is “A little is better than none”. If you keep telling yourself you ‘should’ join a gym or go to Zumba classes but you just don’t know where to fit it in, you’re piling more pressure on yourself. Instead, start by fitting a 5 minute walk into your day. 5 minutes after your lunch or after a particularly difficult phone call. You’ve got time to do that. You can build it up from there, but with that 5 minutes you’ve made an active decision to look after yourself. Well done!

Stress Tip No. 7: Cushion your day

Stress Management tip No 7 - Lucy Hyde - counselling for stress

Create a buffer around your day by detaching from your phone for 30 minutes at the start and end of your day. Is the first thing you do on waking up check your phone? When your mind and body are still coming to, you are more open and vulnerable, and seeing upsetting news stories, or being reminded of family politics, can affect you more deeply.

Being constantly connected can add to that a feeling of time pressure, that you need to ‘keep up with things’ – but ask yourself, what you are checking your phone FOR? Think about ways that you can take care of yourself without resource to the outside world. Perhaps you could start your day with a 5-minute meditation. Or read a book with your breakfast. It’s OK to protect yourself at your most vulnerable times.

Stress Tip No. 8: Do things that make you laugh

Stress Management tip No 8 - Lucy Hyde therapy - counselling for stress

Laughter can help you relax; a big belly laugh gets the whole body moving, can dissipate some of those accumulated stress hormones and relieve tension. Laughter has many physical and mental benefits and is a way of strengthening connections with other people

Watch a silly film or TV programme. Reconnect with someone who makes you laugh. Even just pretending to smile and laugh has been proven to have health benefits – why not try that right now?

Stress Tip No. 9: Focus

Inner Relationship Focusing is a practice that can help you manage your stress levels. It encourages you to pay attention to uncomfortable feelings rather than trying to change them and it’s surprising how that alternative to trying to push a feeling away can really bring a change in itself.

Stress Management tip No 9 - Lucy Hyde - therapy for stress

As an example, imagine you’re feeling a tightness across your chest as you worry about getting a piece of work finished. You try and ignore it because you need to get on with that bit of work! Instead, you can sit and pay attention to that tight feeling and develop a relationship with it. You get a sense of what it’s trying to tell you (this feeling might be associated with something you internalised as a child on having to get things done or working hard). And because you’ve ‘listened’ to it, it relaxes a little and lets you carry on with what you’re doing in a less stressed way. There are similar practices and methods; Focusing is one that works for me and you can teach yourself to do it with free resources (see the end of this article).

Stress Tip No. 10: Find a therapist

OK, you got me – therapy isn’t a quick 5-minute stress tip. But you can spare 5 minutes to look for one! Speaking to someone unconnected with the rest of your world can be really beneficial to get an understanding of why you are feeling so stressed – and what you discover might surprise you.

Stress Management tip No 10 - Lucy Hyde - therapy for stress in Edinburgh

There may be good reasons that you are feeling stressed, especially if you’ve had a number of changes in your life in a short space of time, and a counsellor can support you to recognise that what you’re feeling is normal and not weakness.

On the other hand, often we look for reasons outside us to blame our feelings of stress on, and while there can be all sorts of very real external factors that contribute to why we feel under pressure, actually working on how we manage our response to these is more helpful in the long run. And we can take control of our own behaviour and responses – whereas we can’t always control what goes on around us.  

When counselling, I often encourage people to focus on what they are doing well rather than what they’re not doing, and to consider how they can be kind to themselves, which can then resource them better to deal with the strains of everyday living. Get in touch with me if you want to find out more.

10 Stress Management tips - Lucy Hyde - therapy for stress in Edinburgh

These are just some suggestions for managing feelings of stress. There are plenty of others and there are additional references and sources of information below. But start small; if you give yourself the target of a major life change to ‘escape’ stress, you may be setting yourself up for failure.

Remember – stress reactions don’t mean that there’s something wrong with you. But if you don’t pay attention to them they can take over your life and drain it of its colour. While external factors contribute, stress responses are an internal process, and you can make choices to do things differently and take more control. You will sometimes slip back – and that’s OK, because if you’ve made changes once, you can do it again, and practice helps you get better at it.

Start with a small step today.

Other information

http://www.stress.org.uk/national-stress-awareness-month-2019

https://www.webmd.com/balance/guide/tips-to-control-stress#1

https://psychcentral.com/lib/20-tips-to-tame-your-stress/

https://medium.com/s/notes-on-changing-your-life/https-medium-com-laura-khoudari-dont-start-with-the-breath-3f4b7f5d3b33

https://focusingresources.com/

Permission to be wobbly

Acknowledging the impact of change

This week I’ve been thinking about transitions and changes. This is partly because of a transition in my own life – I’m about to move house and move country, and having done it (in the opposite direction) two years ago, I’m keen to acknowledge the effect that this is likely to have on me. And someone very close to me has also had a very big change in their life, and so it’s brought into sharper focus the impact that change can have on us.

I wonder whether there are certain changes that culturally we ‘expect’ to have a bigger impact than others – whether we’re ‘allowed’ to be rocked more by one event than another, and in the same vein whether we therefore permit ourselves to ‘feel’ more in response to one change than to another. If I apply this to myself, when my mum died, I think I was really good at grieving, for want of a better way of putting it. Somehow it seemed uncomplicated; I’d got lots of messages from people that it was OK to start crying at random moments (and I did), I sought out hugs from people (sometimes to their surprise), I accepted offers of help gratefully. On the other hand, when I moved to another country, while part of me thought “this might be a bit tricky”, another part was very much focused on the idea that I was lucky to have this opportunity and therefore it would be ungrateful or weak to be discombobulated by the experience – viewing myself as an entitled middle-class snowflake fussing about a first world problem.

Thankfully I’ve got better in recent years at voicing my discomfort, and a number of conversations with people helped me recognise that, from an outsider’s perspective, stopping working for the first time in my adult life, leaving my home, friends and family and moving to a country where I didn’t speak the language, had the potential to be quite challenging. That didn’t quiet the voice inside me, that told me I ‘should’ be better at living the dream – “Oh for goodness sake, embrace the challenge!” –  but it did help me pay attention to what fears or anxieties that voice might be trying to drown out, and to learn a lesson about allowing myself to find the change difficult.

These are fairly significant changes. But changes that, on the face of it, may ‘look’ small, can still have a big effect, yet we have a tendency to dismiss them – “it’s not worth getting upset about”. The problem is that in telling yourself something isn’t worth getting upset about, there’s an implicit message that by being upset, there’s something wrong with you. So then not only are you feeling uncomfortable, you’re feeling ‘bad’ for feeling uncomfortable – a double whammy.

There can be all kinds of reasons why you might find a particular change difficult. It can upset your routine, which is what gives structure to how you function day to day. It can tap into deep-seated fears or decisions that you made as a small child of how your life ‘should’ be – decisions that you might not be aware of consciously but that direct how you live your life as an adult. It can trigger memories of past experiences that were traumatic in some way. (Years ago I remember getting a small promotion at work. I knew I ‘should’ seize this as a career opportunity, but the offer triggered memories of an earlier experience in another company where I had been given more responsibility, little support and eventually was disciplined because I was isolated and didn’t know how to speak up. Is it any wonder I didn’t welcome the promotion with open arms?)

Perhaps most importantly, it’s hard to think of any change that doesn’t bring some loss with it. A new baby is cause for celebration, but it can also mean a loss of freedom and control for the parents. So there may be a part of us that is experiencing grief, even when a change may be perceived as positive.

It’s important, too, to pay attention to the cumulative impact of changes. In my example of moving countries, there were a number of linked changes – job, social connections, language, environment – but sometimes we experience lots of little unconnected changes that, added together, can really rock our foundations. Maybe you move jobs. Oh, and your best friend just had a baby. They couldn’t be around for you when your pet died two months ago, or when your sister moved away from the area. We might see some changes as positive or dismiss them as unimportant – but that can mean ignoring or minimising the effect they have on our equilibrium. Imagine yourself standing in a boat, and having three waves knocking into you from three different directions, and how that throws you off balance. It’s all very well people saying ‘the only thing that doesn’t change is change’; knowing that doesn’t help when you’re in the middle of it! I’m not saying change is bad – sometimes things are as they are, and we can’t stop change – but acknowledging the effect of it can help us adjust.

Just take a moment, now, to reflect on a change that you may have experienced – big or small – and to sit for a few minutes with your mind on that change to see what comes up for you. What is or was the impact of that change on you emotionally, physically, mentally? Do you allow yourself to feel that impact or do you push it away? Can you offer yourself some compassion for feeling off-kilter? Is there something you can do, for yourself, gently, to ease that feeling?

If you give yourself a hard time when you find things difficult, therapy can really help you unpick those feelings that you feel you ‘shouldn’t’ be feeling and can give you more understanding of, and compassion towards yourself.  It is OK to find change hard and to take care of yourself through a transition. Maybe you can give yourself permission to be wobbly.

Therapist heal thyself

What does self-care look like for counsellors?

This week I’ve been fighting a bug. (You don’t need to feel sorry for me, I’m doing a great job at that.) As I decided each day whether to go ahead with client appointments I’ve been reflecting on what was The Best Thing To Do – for me and for my clients. Never an easy one to figure out, this is even less clearcut with online work when the factor of “Is it in the best interest of my clients to be infected with my snotty bug?” is removed. And I don’t have the additional effort of hauling myself through the cold to a rented room in the city.

I’ve been remembering an article I read when I first started working with clients (alas, I can’t remember the reference) which spoke of the ethical requirements of self-care. That as therapists we have a professional obligation to look after ourselves so that we are in the best possible position to look after others. At the time I read it this was gold for me; if I had a duty to look after myself it meant that I would do it, as I could circumnavigate the internal messages that told me I was being self-indulgent by doing so. possible.

The downside of my interpretation of this requirement is that my tendency to ‘do things right’ then kicks in, in the area of self-care, too; I find myself asking myself if I’m short-changing clients by working when I’m not 100% in peak physical and mental condition (i.e. coming down with a cold). That battles against the belief that my clients need me, that I’m letting them down by cancelling. (As counsellors we sometimes forget that our clients continue to live and function pretty well the other 167 hours of the week that we’re not with them.)

I’m sure my perspective is skewed by being inside the therapy world, but sometimes it feels to me that counsellors are particularly demanding of themselves and each other in the need to do things right. Counselling attracts people who care, who want to do well for others, who want to ‘make people happy’. But sometimes we can be blinded to the value of making mistakes, of having to make a judgment call in a fuzzy situation. Black and white decision making is so much easier!

Self-care isn’t all chocolate cake and scented candles (as pointed out in an article I shared a month or two ago). In this context – of whether or not to cancel appointments – it’s not all about feeling sorry for myself and curling up under a blanket. Even where I may have felt anxious in anticipation, often I feel energised after a client appointment – something about being so focused on the client, about the privilege of sharing their world, about the magic that happens in therapy. Is depriving myself of that feeling self-care? The total focus that I bring to a counselling session means that sometimes I feel as I’m ‘coming back into the world’ afterwards. It’s therefore an opportunity for me to be centred on something other than feeling under-the-weather – surely a form of self-care?

And as therapists we often feel uncomfortable talking about the reality that our work is also our livelihood – we don’t like the idea that we’re charging people a fee for ‘being nice to them’. (NB: GuthrieTherapy recently helpfully reframed this as “therapists are people you pay to teach you how to care for yourself”.) We need to make a living, and I would be dishonest pretending that potential loss of earnings isn’t a factor – financial survival is self-care too. There’s a practical business aspect to this though: we need to be good enough therapists otherwise our clients won’t come back. If we’re putting ourselves under pressure or making a habit of working when we’re not up to it, that won’t help the bottom line.

All of the above comes with the caveat that we need to not push ourselves to extremes – either of overwork or of self-care! As an example; today I felt I was functioning at 85%; I went ahead with the appointment; I did feel I had more energy afterwards but I knew also that I had recovery time, a buffer of a few hours before the next client.

I have worked in jobs where I would go in when I was feeling rubbish – ‘presenteeism’ we called it in the HR world – because there was stuff that I could do that took less of my energy, and because I felt I had to look like I was keen. I’ve also worked in jobs where I really needed to be 100% fit to cope with the demand of the role. Being self-employed the only person I’m fooling is myself and I just need to make a judgment and make the best of the situation.

As a therapist part of my work is modelling behaviour to the clients I work with. What am I modelling if I feel like shit and go to work anyway for the sake of my client? That the other person is always more important than the self, that I have to rescue them? Instead I need to check each day as it comes with the information that I have; am I fit enough to work? And check at the end of the day; was I a good-enough counsellor? If some days I decide I would have been better taking the day off, that’s information for the future. And that way I’m modelling what it is to be human, that there are very few black and white decisions and that being human is good enough.

***As a footnote: the week after I wrote this, the bug really kicked in, totally flooring me. At one point I started to wonder if I would ever be well again. This was a good reality-check to my musings; there was no way I could have worked in that state – I could barely even think, let alone ‘focus on my client’. It was a reminder that sometimes there are black and white decisions!

References: Kevin Guthrie https://www.facebook.com/guthrietherapy/photos/a.845794862156054/2040954505973411/?type=3&theater , Brianna Wiest https://thoughtcatalog.com/brianna-wiest/2017/11/this-is-what-self-care-really-means-because-its-not-all-salt-baths-and-chocolate-cake/?fbclid=IwAR0mhoAchqyad-4LLCtZfKfSlfE1cua3CvGxff6Qn5xveLjHvbjmbPRVzdM

Why can’t we let ourselves be sad?

Listening to the inner critic.

I had a conversation with a friend around New Year. We had both had periods during the festive season where we had been feeling sad in some way. Sad – what a lot that word contains. My friend used the words ‘sensitive’, ‘spiky’. My memory is of a mood of suppressed rage.

Two things occur to me now as I reflect on our brief chat. One is that I was really glad that she felt able to tell me. The second is that I felt relief that I wasn’t the only one that felt like this. You might think that, in my line of work, I would be well aware of the difficult feelings people experience over Christmas or holidays or family gatherings – and I am, more-or-less. Why were my social media posts, in the run-up to Christmas, so full of exhortations to self-compassion and the need to make space for yourself? Because I hope to remind and reinforce that belief in me, too, by reminding others! But although I am – these days – able to reflect on my responses and emotions at difficult times with more kindness, I am still learning……and I don’t always catch myself in the moment and give myself permission to feel whatever it is I’m feeling. Minute-to-minute kindness? Not quite.

However, one way that I realise I have changed is that my question, reflecting on my festive bad moods (Festive Bad Moods! I must remember that as a tagline to celebrate next year), has shifted from “Why did I feel sad?” to “Why can’t I let myself be sad?” and this is a really important difference for me. Lots of people come to therapy because they want to understand WHY they think / feel / behave as they do. I understand that, of course I do – I want to know those answers myself and just because I’m not asking that question today doesn’t mean that I won’t get frustrated by it tomorrow. But I also believe from my own experience that 1. You might never know and 2. Even if you do get the answer, it’s not necessarily The Answer. Even if you can pin down a cause, it doesn’t change how you feel……….only experiencing things differently, and lots and lots of practice, can do that. The answer to “Why did I feel sad?” in this case, was: I just did. And that’s OK; but I didn’t remember that at the time.

In my Transactional Analysis training, one of our core bits of theory was around “racket” and “authentic” feelings (English 1972). “Authentic” feelings are fear, anger, sadness and joy, each of which has a useful function in our lives (e.g. anger is what we use to tackle a barrier to where we want to go). “Racket” feelings are those which we have learned to use to ‘cover up’ the original feeling, so for example, if anger was considered an unacceptable emotion when you were little, and you got into trouble for being angry, you may have developed a coping mechanism whereby if you were angry, you would cry and get comforted for being sad. So over time you learn to overlay anger with sadness, such that as an adult, your response when someone treats you badly is to feel sad. You may never feel angry at all. (That’s not to say one feeling is more ‘real’ than the other, but words are imperfect and so we make do with what we have.)

I love this piece of theory and have spent hours trying to puzzle out exactly how it fits for me, and why, and trying to remember scenes from my childhood as ‘evidence’ for this…….and yet. And yet, although it helps me understand myself more, I still find myself in situations where I feel what I unconsciously label as ‘bad’ feelings, and try and suppress them, which often ends in me feeling worse. I get less of an emotional ‘hangover’ from this than I used to because I understand why I do it. But there is still something going on, around trying to change my feelings, which feels judgmental.

I truly believe that there is no such thing as a bad feeling…..but there’s a little part inside of me that’s not always convinced when I apply that to myself.

So now I’m trying a new tack which is more about acceptance. For me, this is enhanced by Focusing, which is a body-centred practice where I bring awareness to feelings and sensations that are going on in the background. The key with Focusing (which you can do alone or with a companion) is learning to ‘sit alongside’ uncomfortable feelings rather than trying to change them. This process in itself allows the feelings to shift and become less uncomfortable because they’re no longer vying for attention or feeling unworthy. This for me is also an important way of allowing the fears of my inner critic (which after all, is only looking out for me) to be voiced. Focusing is what works for me; I guess other people use mindfulness practice, or meditation, or spiritual practices of other sorts that work for them.

Mind you, it’s hard to break the habit of wanting to ‘figure out’ or fix; a lot of the time I am paying attention to that part of me that wants to figure out…… before I can pay attention to other stuff. But there is something really key about the experience of allowing uncomfortable feelings, that helps, that is part of self-compassion, self-care……….something about not trying to make yourself change, in order to allow yourself to change. Permission rather than pushy parent.

So I think, actually, the title of this blog should have been “May I let myself be sad?”

References or other sources of information: English, F. The substitution factor: rackets and real feelings. TAJ. 2:1 1972; https://psychologymuffins.wordpress.com/2014/03/26/racket-feelings-in-transactional-analysis/; Focusing – https://focusingresources.com/or http://www.focusing.org.uk/