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

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.

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