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

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/