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How to ease coronavirus-related anxiety

I’d like to introduce a simple practice that I believe can really help with managing uncomfortable feelings. It’s relevant in any situation, but perhaps particularly so at a time when more of us are dealing with unaccustomed feelings because of the unusual situation we’re in, with changes to routine, uncertainty, fears for ourselves or loved ones and other challenges. ‘Covid-19 anxiety’ is becoming a catch-all term for all sorts of ways in which our emotional and mental wellbeing may be thrown off balance.

overthinking counsellor East Lothian

Focusing, or ‘inner relationship focusing’, is a way of easing difficult feelings. Notice I don’t say ‘getting rid’ of feelings. I’m used to hearing from people that they want to get rid of feelings of anxiety or overwhelm or stress or despair. If that’s you, then you might not like it when I say that, in my experience – and I’m talking about my personal experience as well as professional – what really makes a difference is when you stop pushing those feelings away.

What is ‘Focusing’?

Inner relationship focusing is a term coined by Ann Weiser Cornell who worked with Eugene Gendlin, the originator of ‘Focusing’. Gene Gendlin studied under Carl Rogers, who founded person-centred therapy. Gendlin did extensive research in the 1950s and 60s, in an attempt to ascertain what made psychotherapy successful for some clients but less so for others. He found that clients who made positive lasting change had an innate ability to pause and check ‘inside themselves’, to access a body feel of their issues, an intuitive ‘felt sense’ which they could learn from for their personal development and growth.

Lucy Hyde therapy asking for what you want

Gendlin went on to develop a step-by-step process, by which clients who didn’t have this ability naturally, could be taught it – not only to get more from therapy, but to work on issues or challenges themselves. Ann Weiser Cornell, a student of Gendlin’s, went on to develop her inner relationship focusing from this.

How can Focusing help me?

Three years ago I uprooted myself from my home and moved with my partner to Italy for two years. Various circumstances led to this being possible, and for it to be the right time (post Brexit referendum but pre-Brexit!) to do it. What I thought in my conscious mind was: “It’s going to be a bit tricky in some ways but it’s a great opportunity and I’m lucky to be able to do it.”

Underneath all this – and mostly ignored and suppressed by me – was terror at the unknown and the fear that I wouldn’t be able to cope in a country where I didn’t speak the language and didn’t know how things worked.

You know what? It was bloody hard. I wasn’t working for the first time in my adult life. I didn’t speak the language. I didn’t have any friends or family close by, other than my partner. Everything was complicated by not knowing how things worked. BUT what made it harder was that, at the start, I didn’t allow myself to really feel how difficult and frightening all this stuff was, because I was living in the most beautiful city in the world and so I was ‘lucky’. I was aware there was a lot of discomfort, and that I wasn’t feeling happy and skippy – but also there were lots of times when I was excited and happy at the newness and beauty of it all – the ‘acceptable’ feelings.

managing conflicting feelings with online counselling

My feelings about the experience were unique to me – my own history and personal baggage lent their own twist – but even as I began to acknowledge that there were feelings of fear and loneliness and shame (at not having a wonderful time) I was ruminating about how to get rid of them, figuring out what I could busy myself with to get through them or away from them quickly.

I’d been trying Focusing on and off over the previous 3 or 4 years, while also in personal therapy – and it had become something I used to try and make sense of intense feelings (a kind of emotional first aid when things became extreme). Because I knew it could be helpful when I was feeling things were getting on top of me, when I was anxious or stressed or emotionally overwhelmed, I began doing it more.

What I discovered was interesting. Focusing didn’t make those feelings of anxiety or stress or shame or overwhelm go away. As I look back on my experience of living in Italy, I remember vividly that it was both terrible and wonderful, and that, even after two years, I was still at times experiencing anxiety, fear and shame.

But what I learned was that I could tolerate these feelings by sitting alongside them. I learned that I could hold both the despair and the delight – sometimes at the same time – without being consumed. I also discovered that sometimes these parts of me, that were trying to get my attention, had some wisdom to impart, which I could learn from. My friend and colleague’s phrase “This is an AFLOG” (another fucking learning opportunity for growth), was never so apt as then.

A part that often came up during this time was my inner critic. So I might find myself sitting with something that was telling me I just needed to get on with things. Often as I stayed with this, I realized that this part was really scared and young, and ‘getting busy’ was its way of pretending it was grown up. The critic or the busy bee was trying to protect me in the only way it knew how. I see people writing about ways to ‘shut the inner critic up’ and I feel sad for that treatment of what is essentially someone’s inner child, who just needs to be listened to, but is manifesting itself in a way that feels ‘too much’.

My experience of feeling out of place, not belonging and not knowing how to belong, has been invaluable to me in my work since then with clients. Developing my practice to offer online therapy (so that I could continue to work with English-speaking clients) was unexpectedly invaluable in the current setting where suddenly online counselling is all there is.

the growth you hold within - online therapy
AutoRinascita by Carlotta Baradel

But more valuable than both of these has been learning the ability to sit with the not-knowing, to feel anxious, or afraid, or not-good-enough – to be able to say to those parts of me “Oh hey there! I know you’re there. I know you’re feeling [whatever]” and to be able to carry on. Don’t get me wrong – that inner critic is still there (this time saying “you shouldn’t be feeling that your emotional wellbeing is affected by coronavirus lockdown because you’re an experienced online counselor”)…….but I’m able to recognise it pretty quickly and to give it space while still allowing the feelings of sadness and missing family and friends and routine.

How is Focusing different from meditation or mindfulness?

You might already be familiar with exercises or practices that can help you soothe yourself, like mindfulness or meditation. In which case you might not be interested in learning about another one! Focusing is much like mindfulness…..AND it’s more. Because with Focusing there’s the opportunity, not only to  notice when something comes into your awareness but, rather than letting it pass through, to form a relationship with it, listen to it – and learn from it. It can be soothing, it can be calming – and more too.

“If I let my anxiety in, won’t I become overwhelmed?”

Here’s a metaphor for you. Imagine that the anxiety (or feeling, or self-critical thought) is a little child wanting to get your attention. You ignore it. It shouts louder. You shut it in a cupboard. It really needs to scream now to be heard. And it’s going to carry on screaming even if you try and pretend it’s not there. What would happen if instead you let it out of the cupboard, take it in your arms and soothe it?

Listening to your inner child
Image by Paolo Stefanelli

That’s how I think about uncomfortable feelings. Whether it’s anxiety, feeling that you’re out of control, thinking that you’re not good enough – there’s a part of you that’s trying to get your attention, and the more you ignore it the harder it tries. The practice of inner relationship focusing is a way of giving those feelings some space without becoming overwhelmed by them, because it encourages you to sit alongside them – like you might sit with a friend – rather than be in them. I see these ‘parts’ as being rooted in myself at different times in my life – part of my ‘inner child’, if you will – and by spending time with them I’m doing some gentle parenting.

The easiest way of understanding what inner relationship focusing is, is to try it! I’ve included a video at the end of this blog that talks you through a very brief version of a focusing exercise so you can try it for yourself. If you want to skip the preamble, you can fast forward to about 2 minutes 20 seconds in, to the start of the exercise.

My own experience of Focusing encouraged me to learn more, initially with a Focusing Skills certificate, and I’m currently studying to become a Focusing Practitioner. I use a Focusing way of being in my work with clients, and I also teach them Focusing, if they’re interested, as a way of becoming more comfortable at ‘checking-in’ with themselves.

You can read another version of this article at ‘The 8 Steps of Focusing‘.

If you want to learn more about Focusing, including how to develop your own practice, check out the resources below.

Benefits of Focusing

Ann Weiser Cornell’s inner relationship focusing

Gene Gendlin’s six step guide to focusing

British Focusing Association

help with depression

COVID-19: Transferring your therapy practice online temporarily

First up: Don’t Panic. You can do this.

Or, actually – take a moment.

Bring your attention to the part of you that is panicking. This isn’t the whole of you; you are still functioning. Let that part of you that is feeling anxious know that you hear it. Say to it “No wonder”. Anxiety is normal, and it’s OK. And you can hold the anxiety and carry on with other stuff.

DISCLAIMER: I should mention that I’m just a therapist who happens to do a lot of online work. I’m not qualified to train other people to work online, and I don’t recommend switching your practice online on a permanent basis without specific training. This is an extreme situation and I simply want to offer reassurance and practical tips at a time when there is a lot of uncertainty and anxiety.

So here, in no particular order, are some things to think about if you’re planning to transfer your practice online, or even if you’re wondering if you can. I’ll add / update things as I think of them.

Insurance

Check that your insurance company will cover you for online work. They don’t all do this as standard, but even if not, they will probably offer it as an optional add-on – in the current situation even if they didn’t before.

Check registration body guidance

Most of the registration bodies provide at least some guidance around online working. It may also be helpful to check out the competencies published by the Association for Counselling and Therapy Online here.

Supervision

When in doubt – talk to your supervisor! You can discuss your caseload and your sense of yourself working online and explore doubts and fears. Consider whether you have at-risk clients that online working wouldn’t be suitable for. You might want to discuss whether your Clinical Will is up-to-date, at a time when many people are going to get ill. Your supervisor should be able to help you decide on how competent you feel to work in this way from an Adult position.

You could also consider extra supervision from a supervisor who has expertise in working online (if your existing one doesn’t). Check out ACTO-approved online supervisors here. Who do you know that works with clients online who could offer some peer support?

ICO & GDPR

Most therapists are registered as Data Controllers with Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO). If you’re not already then you need to consider whether you should do so at this point as you are likely to have at least some personal information stored / processed electronically.

Added 25.03.2020: You may also need to consider note-taking, particularly if you work for an agency where notes are stored on the premises. Do you have lockable secure storage for your notes in your house? What might you need to consider in terms of secure electronic storage? I use a cloud-based secure client note system called bac-pac, but there are other types of secure client-note software too – ask around to see what other people use.

Platforms / software

It is generally understood in the online counselling world that Zoom is the best choice for working with clients. There are various reasons for this which centre around security of calls and data security,  which you can read more about if you want to here. VSee is another option which is more secure than Skype, but, like Skype, you have a contact list which means client data is at risk if you get hacked. (Note: there has been talk about VSee restricting new free accounts but they still seem to be available as at 19.03.20.)You don’t have this with Zoom. (And if you have clients who ‘don’t like online’ but are happy with phone counselling, you can use Zoom for audio calls too.)

However, I have heard that Zoom has been struggling because of the additional load as everyone moves online. So, we are talking least worst here at least in the short term, and it’s good to have a back-up. My personal preference is to use Zoom and then to let the client know that we will use WhatsApp as a back-up, checking that I have the right number for them; this means I have their number to hand – belt-and-braces if we need to go to phone counselling.

If you work with groups or offer group supervision you will need to pay for at least a Zoom Pro account – the free account only offers group calls up to 40 minutes.

Security

Added 25.03.2020: It goes without saying that you shouldn’t be using the same password for your Zoom account as any other account and if you’re working more online than normal, cyber-security is an important principle to consider. Use different passwords or pass-phrases for every different log-in that you need and don’t write them down. Consider investing in a pass-phrase storage system like Keeper or something similar to ensure that client data isn’t vulnerable.

Added 01.04.2020: There have been stories about people trolling Zoom rooms or ‘Zoom-bombing’ where someone keys a random string of 9 digits into Zoom in the hope that it will just happen to be the ID of a meeting. The chances of finding their way into a meeting that’s actually running at that time are pretty slim, but there are a few things you can do to protect yourself and your clients.

One is, obviously, only send the meeting link to people you want to be there! Another is to enable the ‘waiting room’. This means that your client will have to wait for you to let them join the meeting but crucially, means that you would see anyone else who tried to get into the meeting. You can also set a password which means that someone with the meeting ID – but without the password – wouldn’t be able to access the room. The password is encrypted into the link you send your client, so you don’t need to communicate it separately. And finally, if you set screen-sharing options to host-only, then even if someone was to access the room, they wouldn’t be able to share unwanted images.

Planning and physical set-up

Many of us are used to spending at least some time online or at a device of some sort. Don’t assume that you need to be set up with a PC and camera. You can use Zoom from a mobile device too – phone or tablet. You can make a phone stand out of cardboard like the one below.

It’s important that you consider lighting and background. Your face needs to be visible to the client and you probably don’t want a view of your socks drying on the radiator behind you.

My preference is to use headphones or earbuds because they cut out any noise interference from my end, and ensure no one elsewhere in my house can hear the client. I encourage clients to do so as well – sometimes there’ll be feedback of my voice from the speakers at their end which can be distracting.

The main thing, of course, is that you have a private and confidential space with a good enough internet connection. The easiest thing may be to find a colleague in the same boat, set up your Zoom accounts and call each other, then you can feed back on each other’s ‘space’.

Added 23.03.2020: Remember to account for any ‘smart’ devices you have in your house. Law firms are highlighting concerns with client confidentiality where Alexa or similar devices may be listening in to conversations. Don’t forget to turn devices like this off or make sure they’re out of earshot of wherever you’re working. Think about other potential interruptions like deliveries, house phone ringing etc. Olivia Djouadi has written a helpful article about practicalities here.

online counsellor working from home

Prepare yourself

When I first started working online, I had a check-list that I used to make sure I had everything to hand when I sat down. This included things like ‘shut doors, earphones, pen, phone, diary, water’. This is particularly helpful if where you normally sit at your computer doesn’t feel ‘appropriate’ as a client space, for example you might want to sit on the sofa with your laptop on the coffee table instead, so a checklist can help you have things to hand.  

It’s also helpful to plan what you’ll do if there’s a problem with the technology, to have a back-up plan.

Emma Cameron has created an online therapist daily checklist.

Lucy Hyde webcam counselling

Help the client to prepare

Remember this is new for the client too, to relate to you in this way. They may be used to FaceTimeing friends and family and it’s going to be helpful for them to be reminded that this is something different. Reassure them while acknowledging that you are not an expert – you are modelling being Good Enough!

I send an info sheet to all my online clients before we start working together (and have done so with in-person clients who are moving to online work) to help them prepare their ‘room’. It’s important that they, too, have a private and confidential space. Reminding them of the importance of taking time to ‘get into the space’ before and afterwards can be helpful as they won’t have their usual travel to you.

Re-contract with clients

You should make your client aware that nothing online is 100% secure, even though you are taking precautions. I include a paragraph in my online working contract around the limitations to security and advising clients not to use shared computer equipment or communicate in environments where there is a lack of privacy.

I’m also explicit about online counselling not being suitable for working with certain issues, such as suicidal thoughts or acute mental illness, and that I will support clients to other sources of help if these arise during our online work and we can’t meet. This is a slightly different scenario to when you already have an in-person relationship but it’s still important to talk about what you/they might do if emergency support is required.

Be clear with clients about the difference between face to face and in-person work – that some of the usual sensory cues are absent so that there is a greater opportunity for misunderstanding each other.

And – agree what you’ll do if there’s a technology fail.

Payment

If you normally do cash or cheque, you’ll need to think about how the client pays you. I offer payment by bank transfer or PayPal. PayPal charge commission but some clients are more comfortable with this way of payment so for me it’s worth it to offer the option. Make sure that you communicate to the client that payments by PayPal are subject to PayPal’s privacy policy. There are other options for electronic payment out there so ask around.

Client presentation & online disinhibition

Clients may present differently when you are working with them online and you will both need time to adjust to this. If you’ve ever found yourself marvelling at the ‘flame wars’ that arise on social media, you’ve experienced the online disinhibition effect. The particular relevance in online work is that clients can ‘expose’ themselves more due to the perceived distance from the therapist, that they reveal more of themselves, which can be beneficial.  

However, it can also have a negative impact on the client because they can say more than they later feel they wanted to and feel shame or want to retreat. Here we are talking about someone you are already used to working with and you can help them pace themselves. You can read about the online disinhibition effect here.

Remember self-care!

Be aware of your limitations. Make your workspace as comfortable as you can – it may only be temporary, but if you’re sitting at it for hours a day, it’s going to have an impact on you physically. Take regular breaks from the screen and from your seat.

Remember you’re likely not to be moved around as much, if you’re used to travelling to and from your place of work so be mindful of this when you’re scheduling clients in and make time to move around, go out for a walk or do some crazy dancing on the spot if you’re in self-isolation.

Counsellor self-care

It will be OK

It’s OK to acknowledge that you’re not tech-savvy – your client didn’t contact you because they thought you were a technical wizard. You are not expected to be an expert, don’t be afraid to not know. It’s OK to ask. These are extreme circumstances and you are looking to balance the risk against the benefit. Refer back to your guiding ethical principles to remind yourself what is in the best interests of your client and yourself. Don’t let Perfect be the enemy of Good!

You are going into the not-knowing together with the client in this as with the rest of your work. Allow it to be a bit weird. Bring yourself back to core principles that you work to and to your self-awareness. These will serve you in this uncertainty as they always do.  

And finally – invest in training!

A reminder that there is lots of great training out there for working online with clients. Don’t be tempted to think after a few weeks of working with clients online “Oh, I know what I’m doing know.” Committing to a proper training course is essential if you decide to do this on a more permanent basis. Look here for information about training courses.

Listening to your inner child

When is it OK for a therapist to talk about their pants? The answer is (I hope 🤔) right now!

Putting on my therapy pants!

My training was in Transactional Analysis. The ‘transaction’ is any interaction with another person, and one of the aspects that we ‘analyse’ is what ego state someone is in when they are interacting with someone else.

Too  much jargon? Sorry. But ‘ego states’ is really shorthand for describing a way of being that is related to past experiences – and I love this model because it’s really easy to understand.

nner child - Parent Adult Child model
Eric Berne’s ego state model (1961)

There are three ego states – Parent, Adult and Child. When you’re in Adult, you’re operating in the here and now; it’s a useful state for problem-solving and for managing day-to-day concerns.

Your Parent ego state is influenced by messages from your parents and other care-givers or important authority figures in your life. It’s the voice in your head that says “Don’t speak with your mouth full”, “Always put others before yourself” – and various other instructions and accepted wisdoms for getting on in life. Many of these help you get on and be accepted in society, but this voice can tip over into criticism and an internal voice that tells you you’re only OK if you’re keeping people happy, for example.

Your Parent can be nurturing as well, with messages like “You’ve overdone it this week, you’ll get overwhelmed if you see too many people” that can help you take care of yourself – but that can also tip over into “Don’t run! Don’t do anything spontaneous!”

Therapy - mother daughter relationship (Image 5540867 from Pixabay)
Image 5540867 from Pixabay

Then your Child. Your Child often adapts to the Parent by responding to critical messages, and sometimes rebels by behaving badly, for example eating or drinking too much.

But you also have a Free Child somewhere in there. And this is the part that gets excited when it snows………..or enjoys swimming in the sea……or doing some kind of fun or joyful activity. For some people, this little guy doesn’t often get a look-in. It has its roots in a very young you, before all that conditioning and learning how to behave, and its focus  is itself and what it wants. Selfish in a completely natural and positive way, it’s a vital part of your wellbeing!

Therapy for your inner child (image Amber Clay from Pixabay)
Image Amber Clay from Pixabay

“So what’s all this about your pants?”

(said nobody, as they’re relieved I’ve got off the topic).

WELL, I was reminded of the simple Parent Adult Child model the other day when I needed to buy some undies (long overdue because I hate shopping except when it’s for food). My internal conversation when I got into M&S went something like this:

🩲 I need new pants. (Adult)

Which ones do I normally get?

🩲 You won’t be able to bring them back. (Parent)

🩲 Oh dear, I’d better make the right choice. (Adapted Child)

Why do they have to change anything ever? This is too hard!

🩲 Look at these red stripey ones! (Free Child)

🩲 These ones look right. But where are they made? Have they got plastic in them? (Adapted Child)

🩲 Perhaps I should try and get ones that are comfortable for rowing in. (Nurturing Parent)

🩲 I’d better get it right or it’s a waste of money if I can’t return them. (Adapted Child/Critical Parent)

🩲 Why don’t I try them on, there’s a fitting room just here. (Adult)

🩲 OK, so which are the most ethical and also comfortable and right for every possible occasion? (Parent)

🩲 Look at the stripey ones! I WANT THE STRIPEY ONES! (Free Child)

Guess what? I bought the stripey ones. A daft illustration perhaps, but it gives a sense of how we can move between ego states from moment to moment – and it also shows how each state has their role to play.

Lucy Hyde therapist - inner child (Image Kalahari from Pixabay)
Image Kalahari from Pixabay

People often assume when they first learn about this model that they should be in Adult all of the time. We’re adults, right? But actually, the reality is that our Adult is often contaminated by the Parent or Child getting in on the act and having a little battle with each other out of awareness. If you find yourself using the word ‘should’, there’s a good chance that you’re in Parent mode.

Counselling - father and son relationship (image Lorraine Cormier from Pixabay)
Image Lorraine Cormier from Pixabay

In the dialogue above, the Parent was, at least some of the time, concerned that I was going to be comfy in my new pants. That would certainly have been my mum’s driving message when she was buying pants for me when I was little, which I guess equates to ‘be sensible’ in my head.

The Free Child was reminding me that joy in simple things – red stripes in this case – is OK.

So it’s not so much about it not being OK to be in our Parent or Child ego state, but it can be really helpful to increase our awareness of when we are being influenced by them – whether our response to something is based on the here and now or whether we’re being swayed by messages from our family history, or by beliefs of what keeps us safe from the imperfect logic we used to make sense of things in childhood.

One of my supervisors used to ask me – when I was feeling uncomfortable or unsettled about a choice I had to make “Are you making this decision from your Adult?” And that was really useful, because it would help me see that sometimes my decision-making was being influenced by a Parent-Child battle between ‘shoulds’ and beliefs of what I thought would ‘help people to like me’.  

Much of the work of therapy is often about integrating these ego states into our Adult so that they can bring their own wisdom, experience and sense of fun into our day to day experiencing. When I’m working with clients, I’ll sometimes suggest that they pay attention to what’s going on in their body, as often this can tell us something about what their Child is wanting, or is afraid of.

And every day when I get dressed I smile when I pull out a pair of stripey pants. 🩲🩲🩲

Lucy Hyde counsellor - inner child (image Dara Nilrothanak from Pixabay)
Image Dara Nilrothanak from Pixabay

Reference: Berne, E. Transactional Analysis in Psychotherapy. New York, Grove Press 1961.

Why is Christmas so bloody hard?

Finding Christmas challenging LucyHydeTherapy

Bah, humbug! A friend tagged me on a Facebook post – a video of Fascinating Aida performing their song which goes “Try not to be a c*nt at Christmas” (their asterisk). My response was that my own song would be more along the lines of “Why doesn’t Christmas just fuck off?” ……….so what is about Christmas that brings out my foul mouth and my prickly side?

Over the years, I’ve definitely developed more of my bah humbug side, and if the thought of Christmas fills you with nothing but joy – or if Christmas simply is irrelevant to you – then this may not be the blog for you! Having said that, reading it may help you understand why some of us struggle.

I’ve noticed in recent years it’s become more socially acceptable to say that you don’t look forward to Christmas, or find it difficult. Personally, I’ve veered between extremes of love and hate over time and I’m surprised – AGAIN – when I realise I’m not sure how I feel about it.

There’s part of me, that in the last few years has simply wished that Christmas would Go Away, or that I could fall asleep for a  month and wake up when it’s over so I don’t even have to decide whether it’s Good or Bad, and I recognise that these – along with the occasional “I HATE CHRISTMAS” running through my head – have much of the child about them, so there’s clearly something triggered in me at this time of year, even if I don’t know what it is!

But what I’m also noticing is that somewhere in this I seem to have moved towards an acceptance that Christmas is Difficult. As if instead of pretending it’s wonderful, I’ve decided that it’s awful, and I suppose I’m wondering if I – and those of you who struggle a bit at Christmas – can choose a different response.

What is it that makes Christmas a challenge?

Here are some of the reasons that seem relevant to me for why this can be a difficult time of year, and I’ll explore them more below.

  • Guilt over how one ‘should’ spend the festive period
  • Family dynamics are intensified
  • Financial stresses are increased
  • Juggling work pressures
  • SAD or winter blues
  • Expectations of self
  • Figuring out how to keep everyone else happy (and forgetting about self care)
  • Grief for lost loved ones intensified
  • Being out of usual routines
  • Balancing consumerism and environmental concerns

Guilt over how one ‘should’ spend the festive period

There are lots of assumptions around Christmas. Even while we know that it’s not all about roasting chestnuts round an open fire while dashing through the snow in a one-horse open sleigh, and that the reality is more about the oven breaking down just as the packet of ready-made roast spuds is being opened, on a day that is too-warm-for-this-time-of-year and never gets properly daylight through the grey………….even while we ‘know’ that cognitively, there’s often a part of us that still holds the dream of a Christmas card within.

This can be equally so if you grew up with the perfect Christmas gathered round the tree and are always seeking to return to that, or if your Christmasses were full of arguments and broken families, because chances are that you have a very vivid picture of what you missed out on, and part of you still wants it. So Christmas has some weight riding on it and there’s a good chance that it’ll disappoint – and you might blame yourself in some way for that.

Family dynamics are intensified

Ah, Christmas…….it’s all about family, right? Getting together and feeling the love……at Christmas there’s a good chance that many of us will be seeing family, and often a large number of family members in a relatively short period. Even with people who we have an apparently harmonious relationship with, spending time in the family setting can trigger historic patterns of behaviour, perceived injustices, slipping back into family roles (black sheep………favoured child….).

On the other hand, we may also be more likely to see people out of a sense of ‘duty’ who we’d really rather not. It may be the one time this group of family members gets together! This all takes its toll on our emotional energy, and can lead to us feeling shitty for reasons that we may not understand, especially if they’re pushing buttons from a time when we were very young.

Arthur Rackham Christmas 1 Prawny from Pixabay

Financial stresses are increased

It can be a particularly hard time for parents, if we think that Christmas should be a time of excess and generosity, and we’re struggling as it is week to week. Of course you want to give your child the best Christmas possible, everyone’s sharing the latest bloody John Lewis ad.

Parent or not, there’s often Christmas nights out to pay for on top of presents and we expect to eat more luxurious food than normal. And again, whilst we might be consciously thinking “but I know the most important thing is that I’m seeing the people I care about” we can still often be carrying expectations of ourselves and believing that those people will think we don’t love them if we don’t get them the right gift.

Juggling work pressures

The financial aspect feeds into this one too…….for people who are self-employed the festive period can be a tight time with everything closing down or clients’ holidays meaning that they have less work. And, for people who work in industries that keep going right through without a break, there can be the added pressure of fitting shifts around getting together with friends and families who don’t have the same commitments, and for potentially working out childcare arrangements while children are off school.

SAD or winter blues

Whose bloody idea was it to make Christmas at this time of year? Yes, culturally we associate Christmas with snow and dark starry skies, but winter can be a tough time for people with the reduced daylight hours, and some people also have low energy levels because of the cold. Symptoms of Seasonal Affective Disorder can include low energy, trouble concentrating, fatigue, increased appetite, desire to be alone, greater need for sleep and weight gain. Even if you haven’t been diagnosed with SAD, you may be affected by low mood more in winter than the rest of the year.

Winter blues counsellor Lucy Hyde

Expectations of self

These can be hard to notice – we often assume that we should do and be a certain way without even being aware that these are assumptions  – based on our family history, and then exacerbated by Christmas adverts and Hollywood (I bet if we were all brought up on Mike Leigh or Ken Loach versions of Christmas movies we’d have a different perspective).

I was brought up in a house where we always had lots of homemade sweets around and every possible foodstuff; 10 or more people descended on the house and yet it seemed there was still everything that anyone could possibly want. I carried that memory with me as I set up my own home and couldn’t understand why I found it a struggle to fit in making two different sorts of homemade fudges plus rum truffles and marzipan-stuffed dates, around working full-time in a busy job up until Christmas Eve. It took me years to pay attention to the fact that when I was little my mum had already been doing that type of Christmas for 20 years, wasn’t working outside the home – and may anyway have been fed up with the whole thing herself!  

Figuring out how to keep everyone else happy (and forgetting about self care)

Are you a people-pleaser? Chances are that this part of you heads into overdrive in the run-up to Christmas. It’s only when I lived abroad for a while, and enjoyed Decembers that were pretty much as tranquil as any other month – because we didn’t know many people – that I realised that my ‘normal’ December seems to involve having to meet up with practically everyone I know, all in one month! “Oh, we must go for Christmas drinks!” So, I’m already having a busy month, but for some reason I feel I need to agree to making it busier thereby further reducing the time that I have to do the things that I’m the only person that expects them of myself anyway…………and breathe.

Grief for lost loved ones intensified

This can be relevant whether those people are missing through death or have moved away. For people who have families scattered all over the globe, Christmas can feel a very empty time, the equivalent of the little match girl gazing through the window into the candle-lit sitting-room of children gathered round a parent reading a story by the Christmas tree. You might also be grieving for the family or loved ones that you never had – a lost Christmas experience that never was.  So Christmas can also be a very, very lonely time.

Being out of usual routines

Routines are great. They’re the scaffolding that our lives hang on, the stuff that we don’t have to think about that gets us through the day or week. For anyone who’s had times when they’ve felt their energy ebbing – physical, mental or emotional – developing self-care routines can be really helpful.

These can often be very simple things – a brief walk before starting the day’s work, 10 minutes planning the day, journaling before bed. They can take a little time to establish – and they can easily fall by the wayside when the rest of the daily routine changes – kids are around all the time demanding attention, you’re not at work, sleeping times are different – and often you don’t notice you’ve slipped out of them until you realise that we’ve already emptied the tank.

Balancing consumerism and environmental concerns

I spent years – and I mean YEARS – making myself feel crappy about Christmas present shopping, gradually finding ways of making present-shopping a pressure and a chore. At some point in the last decade, I added a new tradition to Christmas day: the empty box to put the proportion of Christmas gifts in that, as soon as they were opened, I knew were going straight to the charity shop. And yet it still took me a long time to be able to say, at last, to all those people I exchanged gifts with: “I’m not getting you anything this year, please don’t get me anything.”

The effort and angst that was involved in giving myself permission to do things differently – because I was afraid, at some level, that people would think I didn’t love them – or wouldn’t love me – was enormous. I see lots of people this year struggling with the balance of wanting to demonstrate love but with awareness of the devastating effect that that ‘demonstration’ is having on the planet – and a lot of these struggles seem often to be focused on the fear of hurting others.

But what can I do about it?

Many of the above points relate to challenges that affect other areas of life, or crop up at other times of year, but there’s something about Christmas – with its combination of tradition, family scripts, media hype and cultural assumptions – that seems to roll lots of difficult shit up in one stinking bundle and rub our faces in it. A lot of people find it difficult to prioritise their own needs at the best of times, so a festival that is all about ‘giving rather than receiving’ can exacerbate this.

Winter blues LucyHydeTherapy

Interestingly, research indicates that emergency room visits for mental health reasons drop around Christmas itself – possibly because people at risk have others around them on Christmas Day – but that they rise again afterwards. See this article about it. This, for me, highlights that ‘Christmas stress’ speaks more about the whole atmosphere around the Christmas period rather than the day itself.

And it seems to me that the ‘remedy’ for this can be the same as at other times of year – but it can be harder to apply during this period. How can you listen to what your own needs when there’s a family row going on next door? How do you choose not to repeat previous unhelpful patterns when you’re thrown into the historic family setting that led to them developing?

I don’t have a simple solution to this. I’m struggling with it too. But I think it’s something that we need to continue talking about and I’m offering some suggestions to help you think about it below.

Notice

Lucy Hyde therapy how to cope at Christmas

Make some time to tune in to yourself to get a sense of what your discomfort is around Christmas. Perhaps you think you already know quite well, but it might be something that you try and ignore because you feel you ‘should’ be looking forward to it. Making a few moments to just notice what comes up, not to change it, simply to acknowledge, can really help that part of you – that may be anxious or unhappy – settle a little.

Question

Lucy Hyde counsellor how to cope at Christmas

What are your beliefs around what Christmas is or should be? Have you stopped to consider whether these are realistic or achievable – or might they be rooted in some childhood fantasy? Does hanging on to them help, and if not how might you allow yourself to let them go?

Buffer

Lucy Hyde counselling how to cope at Christmas

Give yourself buffer time if you can, to manage the emotional impact of seeing people. If you find yourself thinking “Well, the most efficient way of getting round these different sets of family would be drive to see everyone the same day”, stop a moment to consider instead what might be kindest to you? There may be certain people who really stir you up emotionally at this time, and if you can give yourself time to settle after you see them it could help.  

Say No

Lucy Hyde therapist how to cope at Christmas

It’s OK to do things differently. I often hear people say “We always do……” – No. You may always HAVE done something but it doesn’t mean you can’t choose to do it differently. You might find others would enjoy the change too – and if they don’t that’s not your responsibility. Let’s be realistic though, you may need to choose your battles here. There are going to be some people you find it easier to say No to than others, so keep reminding yourself the purpose of this is to conserve your own energy and wellbeing.

Think about what you want

Lucy Hyde counsellor Coping with Christmas

What would you like to be different about your festive season and how might you get it? How realistic is it? Who would need to be involved? What would you need to do differently? If there are things that others need to do differently – think about what you can do for yourself, if they refuse to change.

Start a conversation

Lucy Hyde counselling Coping with Christmas

Talk about how you’re feeling about Christmas with someone. You might find they feel the same. Most importantly, find ways to talk about it with the people who are involved. No, I don’t mean saying “I hate Christmas and I’m sick of you getting me things I don’t want even after I’ve told you” – but perhaps it would be OK to start with something that feels relatively small and unthreatening. I really believe that this is a time when practically everyone, to a greater or lesser extent, focuses their attention on what others think or want, or makes assumptions about what others expect – so actually owning what YOU want can make a real difference.

Plan ahead

Lucy Hyde therapist Coping with Christmas

I’ve found that Christmas seems to have suddenly come upon me this year. I’m not sure some switch in my head doesn’t flip on 1 December. But that’s made me think of the advantage of thinking ahead next year – starting to make plans way too early because suddenly it may be too late. I’m not talking about plans for ‘getting everything organised to have the perfect Christmas’ – I’m talking about making time in January to reflect on how the last month was – and really thinking about what I might want for next year.

Be prepared to ‘manage’

Lucy Hyde therapy Coping with Christmas

Perhaps one of the hardest things to let go of is the belief that somehow if you can just change that one thing, then you’ll have a joyous Christmas. While hope can be a wonderful resource for change, some of the things you find difficult about Christmas may not be ‘fixable’ by yourself, so it might be helpful to think instead of how you might manage Christmas in the healthiest possible way for YOU, including allowing yourself to be ambivalent about it.

Breaking with traditions

For those people for whom Christmas is a religious festival, even where they find the secular bit a bit tricky, they may still celebrate and enjoy the spiritual aspect of the period. If Christmas doesn’t have that relevance for you then getting a real, felt sense of what you are celebrating may be important to consider.

I often hear people talking about making their own traditions at Christmas. This can be a great way of escaping from misery-inducing family traditions that you were born into, the classic example being when starting a new relationship and agreeing that you spend Christmas Day together (not with the family of either partner).

But even with new ‘traditions’ we can set ourselves up to ‘feel bad about feeling bad’ – i.e. we establish our own rules on ‘what will make us happy at Christmas’. We all change over time, as we get older and go through different transitions. I’m thinking of establishing a new tradition for myself – of checking in as the season approaches, to decide what I need this year. A few days away where no one knows me? Helping out in a soup kitchen? A quiet time with normal food and a long novel to read by the woodstove? I might even surprise myself one year by choosing to host a full-on tinsel-and-turkey gathering……you never know!

Surviving Christmas LucyHydeTherapy

If you’re alone at Christmas, and would like company on Christmas Day, check out Sarah Millican. She started the annual #joinin campaign at Christmas, for people to hang out together on Twitter, rather than alone at home.

I’m very aware that this blog is written from my own particular perspective on The Christmas Struggle and that I have my fixations and blind spots. I’m really interested to hear what you find easy or hard at Christmas time, how you manage challenges, and if there’s anything you’re thinking about doing differently.

Remember also that Christmas – or the run-up to it – could be a good time to reach out, to speak to someone. If something from this has struck a chord with you that you’d like to explore, please get in touch with me here or with another counsellor.

Oh – and if you like foul-mouthed Christmas tunes and want to enjoy Fascinating Aida’s song – it’s here.

Coping at Christmas LucyHydeTherapy

How I put my needs first! (on one day of the year)

November is my birthday month and for as long as I can remember – or at least for as long as it’s been an option – I’ve always taken a day’s leave for my birthday. Now that I’m self-employed, that feels more significant than it did when I was taking a day of paid holiday entitlement, which has caused me to think about WHY I do it.

Birthdays are funny things, aren’t they? We can respond to them in different ways, and feel differently about them at different times in our lives. Some people see them as a reminder that they are getting older, and thereby are inching closer to death – and that awareness of mortality feels overwhelmingly negative. Sometimes birthdays bring up memories of loved ones who have died or left, and the poignancy of being reminded of people who are gone can cause us to feel that we can’t enjoy the day now that they’re not there to celebrate it with us.

Lucy Hyde therapist putting yourself first
Me on my 19th birthday in student-land

Why celebrate my birthday?

Perhaps it IS a funny thing to celebrate – this accidental day when we just happened to arrive through no doing of our own, and I guess that’s why it’s a celebration – a celebration that I’m here! I’m important! I matter!

I’m the youngest child in my family, and grew up as a baby in a family of adults. Over recent years I’ve become aware of the beliefs that I’ve created for myself from that position, mostly around having to get things right because everybody else knows what they’re doing, working really hard at keeping other people happy (without really having the full knowledge of what it is that will make them happy) and particularly about having to know what to do without asking for help.

Knowing those beliefs are there doesn’t always stop me from being tripped up by them, but does help me tune in, when I’m feeling particularly shitty about a situation, to what baby Lucy is feeling, and acknowledging that – which helps me recover much more quickly.

Please yourself!

So it’s been nice to realise the flip side of that family role – that my birthday is a day when it’s OK to do just what I feel like doing – to be a child, to please myself. Because, for sure, I did get a fuss made of me on my birthday when I was little and probably got a bit of leeway into the bargain. I know – from the stories – that my late arrival was celebrated, and perhaps this is the one day when I know that in my body rather than just in my head.

My 18th birthday cake with 18 little marzipan piglets.

I had parties! With games! (Did you ever play that game that involved putting a hat, scarf and mittens on and then opening a bar of chocolate with a knife and fork?) And trifle! My big siblings came home from uni! I got good attendance at my birthday parties cos we had a big house that was popular for playing hide-and-seek, so some of that anxiety about whether other kids liked me was probably allayed too.

Birthdays are more than just birthdays

Chances are that for you, too, how you feel about your birthday is influenced by your family history – because you’ve been having a birthday for longer than you can consciously remember. Were there people who were missing at your birthday? Family arguments? Drunken fallings-out? Do you feel it’s OK to be made a fuss of? To ask for what you want? To be the centre of attention?

Lucy Hyde counselling eat what you like
Birthday breakfast. Yum.

For me, it is, definitely, the day when my urge to keep others happy is at its least powerful. I ask for what I want for my breakfast (this year it was kaiserschmarrn – see picture). I get to choose what I want to do without recourse to anyone else. This year it was to have an outing to somewhere with good autumn colours (see my previous blog on the joys of walking outdoors) – I even relinquished the responsibility of deciding where! But equally it might have been to spend the day lying on the sofa reading (one birthday in my 20s I spent the whole day reading Tales of the City).

Only when I took a pause to think about it, did I realise how rare it is for me to allow myself to choose what I want to do completely without regard to others. And how important taking that day for me has been, over the years, because of what it represents in terms of letting me know I matter.

It’s all about me!

Now, these days, I’m actually not bad at listening to myself. At not planning the hell out of a weekend to maximise my productivity (whether that production be a clean house or a day out lifetime experience), but instead being OK with having a low-key time pottering about doing not very much of anything. So maybe the need to have a day that’s All About Me isn’t so crucial as it was in the past. But now I’ve realised that it has symbolic significance, I’m sure as shit hanging on to the habit!

On my birthday I take a holiday and I let that little child within me out to play. What does it take for YOU to put yourself first?

Lucy Hyde therapy asking for what you want