What happens in therapy?

Have you been thinking about therapy but feeling anxious about getting started? In this blog I talk about the practicalities of starting therapy, and what to expect when you get in touch with a counsellor.

How does counselling actually work?

When people ask me what I do as a counsellor, I sometimes find it hard to answer. I just ‘do it’. But when a prospective client asks me to tell them more about therapy so they can decide if they want to go ahead, ‘just doing it’ isn’t good enough!

So I decided to write this – for two reasons: firstly, for anyone who’s wanting to get an idea of what to expect if they start counselling, and secondly, to help myself articulate more clearly what it is I do – for the next time someone asks!

The questions ‘What happens in counselling?’ or ‘How does therapy work?’ can be answered in different ways (which probably contributes to my tying myself in knots answering them!) so I’ve split this blog into 2 parts.

  1. Part 1 looks at the practicalities of starting therapy, and what happens at a conscious level, including the sorts of questions I might ask, setting goals, boundaries, and the control you, as client, have over the direction we go in.
  2. Part 2 speaks more of what it is that makes talking therapy a useful contribution to helping people to ‘feel better’, touching on the neurology behind psychological healing – the unconscious stuff that’s going on while – and after – therapist and client talk.

I’m writing from my own perspective – i.e. about what’s likely to happen if you and I work together. While much of what I say will hold true for many other psychotherapists and counsellors, there will be variations in the way we work.

lucy hyde online therapy (image eileen-pan-unsplash)
Image: Eileen Pan on Unsplash

What happens in therapy – Part 1: The Practicalities

So………you’re thinking you might find it helpful to see a counsellor. Or someone’s suggested to you that it might help. Or perhaps they’ve told you that ‘being in therapy’ has helped them. What happens when you take the next step, and get in touch?

Initial contact with the therapist

lucy hyde telephone counselling

When you contact me, sometimes I won’t have space to start working with you straight away. If so, I’ll ask if you want to go on my waiting list, and I’ll usually suggest some colleagues who may have availability.

Sometimes by the time I get in touch to offer someone on my waiting list a space, they’ve found someone else, which is absolutely fine and to be expected. At this stage, I don’t usually ask you for information other than contact details, until I know we’re going to start working together.

That’s not because I’m not interested in you – it’s because a) I don’t want to hold unnecessary personal information about you unless we actually start a relationship, and b) your situation may have changed by the time I have a place, so the information I gathered is out of date anyway.

Even a brief email exchange agreeing the above should give you a bit of a feel for what I’m like, and at least a hunch as to whether you want to work with me. Forming a working relationship is really important in therapy (more on that in Part 2). If, for some reason, I get on your nerves, it doesn’t have to mean we can’t work together – but no matter how good the counsellor is, sometimes there’ll be personality clashes.

Trust your instincts UNLESS you reach the point where you simply think you will never find the ‘right’ therapist – it may be that something in you doesn’t want to! In which case, try someone – or a few people – who feel ‘good enough’, to get started.

We’ve agreed to start working together – what now?

The dreaded paperwork! I ask people to complete a brief assessment form to check I’ve the experience and skills required, and – if we’re going to be working online –  that I believe online therapy is appropriate.

Lucy Hyde online counselling (image shayna-douglas-unsplash)
Image: Shayna Douglas on Unsplash

I usually offer a chat over the phone at this stage – sometimes that’s the easiest way for us to compare diaries and find a time that works for both of us, and I can take some assessment notes at the same time, which some people prefer to the form-filling!

We’ll also talk about HOW we’re going to work together. At the time of writing this blog (early 2022), I’m offering:

  • online counselling via Zoom video call, instant messaging and email;
  • tele-therapy / phone counselling;
  • walk-and-talk therapy – counselling while walking outside.

If you’ve decided you want to work in-person with somebody in a room (the ‘traditional’ way of counselling) I can signpost you to other people who may be able to offer you this.

Again, this is an opportunity for you to get a sense of what it might be like to have sessions with me. If we decide to go ahead and book a first session, I’ll send you an agreement or contract to read over, complete and sign. The agreement goes over practicalities like fees, privacy and where/how to complain if you’re not happy. There’s no requirement to commit to a certain number of sessions.

What happens in our first counselling session?

There are a few areas I usually cover at the start of the first therapy session (e.g. confidentiality, cancellation policy), which are also in the written agreement – I go over them again because I think they’re important. At the end of the session I’ll check with you how the experience has been, and whether you want to continue; we’ll confirm further details, usually agreeing a review point after the first 5 or 6 sessions.

In between the beginning and the end, though, the first session varies greatly depending on you. You might have a very clear idea of what you need to ‘get off your chest’ and the relief of having a space where you can do that means that you don’t need any help to get started. This can be especially true if you don’t have much opportunity to talk to other people about how you feel, or if you’re anxious about burdening people by telling them.

At the opposite extreme, you might not know where to start. If that’s the case, then I may ask you some questions…………..

lucy hyde counsellor whats your story

Things the therapist is likely to ask about:

More information about why you’re seeking counselling

-and why now? Has something changed or brought things to a head?

Your previous experience of therapy

If you’ve had therapy before, I want to know what you found helpful or unhelpful, partly because I don’t want to do more of the unhelpful stuff, but also so I can look out for similar dynamics repeating in our relationship so that I can flag them up and we can talk about them; they might be a feature in relationships in your life generally, so we could learn something from them.

What do you want to GET from counselling?

If this is where you are now, where do you want to be? You might not know at this point, in which case we’ll come back to it at some point down the line.

Your current circumstances

Your living situation, significant relationships, occupation – this helps me understand things like support networks that you have available to you and factors that might contribute to your overall wellbeing.

Your family of origin

Information about what it was like for you growing up can be really useful as it’s likely to influence your behaviour and relationships as an adult, and getting more understanding of ‘no wonder I do this when I had that experience as a child’ can help you be more forgiving and compassionate to yourself.

Lifestyle and self-care patterns

Mental and emotional health is completely interwoven with physical health; there may be changes you want to make at a practical level that will help you mentally.

Anything that feels important to you about your identity or sense of self

You may have a very strong sense of who you are – or you may not know at all.

All these areas may have a bearing on why you’ve decided you want to have therapy, and talking about them can help you better understand yourself. We might not get to any of them in the first session, but I’m likely to ask you more about them at some point.

Reviewing how it’s going

It’ll take us at least a few sessions to settle into a rhythm and get used to each other. I normally suggest that we review how it’s going at session 6 (assuming that you’ve decided you want to carry on that long).

therapy helps you find your way (robert-ruggiero-unsplash)
Image: Robert Ruggiero on Unsplash

I’ll ask you how you’re finding the experience and I’ll share things that I’ve noticed – patterns that we get into, things I’ve not asked you – to see if they feel significant. I’ll want to know what has felt helpful, but I’ll also ask what has felt challenging or unhelpful, and what you think I or we might do differently – for example – do you find it difficult to stay on topic, and want me to flag up when you’re going off on a tangent? Do you feel as if you’re trying to guess the ‘right’ answer when I ask you questions?

Contracts and goals for counselling

I see my role as being to help you change. That might be:

  • making changes in your life
  • changing the way you respond to situations, circumstances or people

So, when we review how it’s going, I might ask what you want to change. Sometimes people find this a difficult question to answer – either because they don’t know, or because voicing what they want to be different, out loud, feels risky. But that’s useful information for both of us, too, as there isn’t a right or wrong answer to this question.

You’re the expert on you, and it’s your right to direct the course of the therapy. It might be that I’m not prepared to agree to work towards the change you want, in which case I’ll say so (gently!) and why. Usually this will be because I don’t think the particular change is within your – our – power.

For example

You might say you want to change the way other people treat you.

I’d point out that we can’t make that change as you don’t have control over other people’s behaviour, and suggest that we could focus on changing how you respond if other people treat you badly.

This might involve, building your confidence in speaking out; choosing not to engage with such people; or developing your self-compassion when you feel bruised by the behaviour of others.

Lucy Hyde counsellor therapy goals

And if my suggestion doesn’t feel right for you, we can carry on negotiating, or we can agree to park it and come back to it. From time to time I might check with you whether the goals we’ve agreed are still relevant or whether they need tweaking.

Is it just the client talking and therapist asking questions?

To an observer, a counselling session might look like two people having a chat. It’s known as talking therapy, after all. Often at the start of our relationship, a large chunk of sessions might be you telling me your story – what’s caused you to get in touch. Early in therapy, I’ll probably ask you more questions  about your life now, and your history, as I try to get more of a sense of who you are and the influences that have shaped you.

walk and talk therapy (georg-arthur-pflueger-unsplash)
Image: Georg Arthur Pflueger on Unsplash

I don’t tend to give advice and certainly don’t tell you what you should do. But equally, I don’t hold back on information which might be useful to you, and so will sometimes share models to help you understand your thinking or behaviour patterns, or introduce some basic neuroscience – this can be helpful in reassuring you that what you see as ‘something wrong with me’ is often a normal biological response to past experiences.

I might also share exercises for you to try inside and outside sessions. Sometimes we’ll agree homework tasks that we can discuss from session to session.

Sometimes I teach a practice called ‘Focusing’ (read about it here) during a session. This is somewhat similar to mindfulness. It can be really helpful as a way of learning to respond to very strong emotions in a way that doesn’t involve avoiding them or being driven by them; instead, you can learn to acknowledge that they’re there and ‘sit next to them’ which can help lessen the intensity of overwhelming feelings.

Doing this in session means that I can help you pace how you do this, a little at a time, especially if you find the thought of engaging with strong feelings, such as anxiety, shame, or fear, is really scary, and worry that they’ll take over – using the session as a space to practice in can be helpful. 

Focusing can also be helpful when you’re not sure how you feel, or when you feel numb – it can help you tune in to the feelings that really will be there, below the surface.

Talking about boundaries

The counselling relationship is a very specific one, like no other. We’re often sharing things that are really intimate, revealing the most vulnerable parts of ourselves. And yet this is happening within one 50-minute session, once a week (or whatever frequency we agree).

I’m firm about the boundaries of the relationship, both for the client and for myself. When we sign our agreement to work together we’re also agreeing the parameters within which that takes place. I don’t engage in conversations outside sessions, other than administrative ones where something unforeseen happens and one of us needs to rearrange the session.

This doesn’t mean that I’ll ignore you if you contact me, and it doesn’t mean that we can’t agree extra sessions sometimes if you’re in distress, but – as I don’t offer a crisis service – in general, we’ll keep to the principle that therapy takes place within the session time boundaries.

Lucy Hyde online therapy setting boundaries (image jan-canty-unsplash)
Image: Jan Canty on Unsplash

This is partly because I take my responsibility as a practitioner seriously, and that means taking my own self-care seriously; I’m not good at multi-tasking and need to keep my work and leisure time separate.

But it’s also because many clients I’ve worked with, struggle to maintain good boundaries, which can lead to various difficulties, such as burning out because you can’t say no when someone asks you to do something. My maintenance of boundaries models to you as a client that taking care of oneself is important; this is much more effective therapeutically than simply telling you that boundaries are important without practising what I preach.

In Part 2 of this blog I’ll talk more about how ‘modelling’ by the therapist is a key part of the effect of  talking therapy, as well other aspects of how the therapist and client relate, and I’ll delve a bit further into the internal changes that take place during the therapeutic experience.

Everyone’s experience of therapy is unique because every relationship between two people is unique. If you want to know more about what it might be like for you to work with me, please get in touch and we can have a chat.

What I learned about myself from wild camping (and how I wasn’t anxious)

The value of pushing yourself to do something new in learning more about yourself.

At the end of September I took a solo trip walking and wild camping. In this blog I share my reflections on what it taught me, and the value of doing something new to learn about yourself.

the winding road Lucy Hyde counsellor

Lone camping was a first for me. I’ve done plenty of walking alone, and I’ve camped with my partner occasionally, but I decided to do this 2-night trip, because the notion came to me one sleepless night, and I wanted to see if I could.

I was excited about the prospect of being in my own company for 48 hours. This feels like quite a new thing for me; traditionally I’ve sought out the company of others and am quite gregarious. But I’ve come to understand recently that partly, that’s because I didn’t like being left alone with my own thoughts, that being around other people was a way of keeping busy. AND (thanks to the lockdown experience) I realised that actually time alone is needed recovery time, as my people-pleaser aspect tends to be on alert when I’m around other people – I’m always trying a little bit harder.

Don’t get me wrong – I still enjoy spending time in company. But the idea of not having to think of anyone else – and in fact, being unreachable through circumstance (i.e. no phone signal) rather than avoidance – had an appeal. No one was going to expect anything of me for the whole of that time. I was going into country I’d not walked before. It was going to just be me, and my food for 3 days, and my ‘home’ for 2 nights, and the hills, and the birds. Writing this now, the idea of it seems exciting all over again!

Lucy Hyde walking therapy

And the reality?

Lucy Hyde walk and talk counselling

Yeah, there were some moments when I was really happy to be in the middle of nowhere with the ravens, where I was excited to think “I’m doing it!” These mostly coincided with sunny bright weather and feeling confident having successfully put the tent up (or having successfully stowed it away).

There was some swearing– when I snapped a tent pole, and at the steady increase of the rain just as I arrived at camp.

There were NO moments when I thought “I wish I wasn’t here” or even “I wish I had someone else here”. (Though there might have been, had I snapped the tent pole when I was putting it up in the rain, rather than when I was taking it down on my last morning.)

And there was, more than anything else, a lot of just-keeping-going and not particularly noticing how I felt at all. It surprised me how much ‘in-between’, neutral time there was, given that I had imagined that, with all that time alone, I’d be likely to get lost in my thoughts, or to get busy worrying. Yet I found myself taken up with being, with getting through it.

For example, a day’s walk on fairly good paths and gently hilly terrain felt more of a feat of endurance with a heavy pack than I’d bargained for. I found myself going more slowly, taking smaller steps. I was careful to eat regularly, yet often didn’t feel particularly hungry – instead I was focused on making sure I had the necessary fuel to make sure I was capable of putting my tent up at the end of the day. 

At some level, even though I wasn’t scared at the remoteness, I suppose I was aware of the reality of having to depend on me, of being careful of husbanding my strength, of not risking injury by sudden movements.

And this process, I guess, kept me very focused in the now, and that’s probably why there were very few points when I felt anxious. My anxiety is often linked to worrying about what I need to do, or anticipating problems (that may or may not arrive), or imagining or assuming what others think about me. Somehow, here, there was less space for worrying about the future: too much attention on ‘now’ (my shoulders hurt, how can I adjust my pack?) to leave room for anticipating problems; and no one around, or expecting anything of me, for me to worry about.

So what DID I learn from the experience?

A few things……..

Sometimes comparing your situation with others’ CAN actually be helpful.

This is not at all a maxim I normally believe in. Many times I’ve had a conversation with a client where we’re trying to undo their tendency to punish themselves because they think other people have it worse than them so they’re not allowed to find things tough. Yet in this situation I was doing something similar.

reading for inspiration

I was halfway through a book before I’d headed off to the hills – A Woman of No Importance by Sonia Purnell (check it out – it’s quite the adventure story). It’s a biography of Virginia Hall, who was an Allied forces agent during World War II, who built up and coordinated units in the French resistance. She had a prosthesis following a leg amputation, and the tale of her having to escape through the Pyrenees in winter with insufficient clothing and food are astonishing.  Yet she survived, and even thrived, in gruelling conditions.

She came to mind when, 4 miles from the nearest available shelter, I‘d just pitched my tent in the pouring rain and had crawled into it, damp, trying to keep wet and dry stuff separate, and to get warm. In that moment I managed to make a little bit of space for the part of me that was finding it All A Bit Much and say “yeah, of course you’re finding this hard! You’ve not done it before”, and to remind myself that Virginia Hall had gone through way harder things and come out OK on the other side – and I would too.

What was important in this moment was my attitude towards myself. Instead of telling myself I wasn’t allowed to find it hard because my issues were too insignificant, I reminded myself that people can come through difficult times and still be OK, while also validating my reaction. (My Focusing practice helped with this – you can learn more about that process here.)

It’s OK to find something challenging even if you’re not the first person ever in the world to do it.

You wouldn’t think this was rocket science, but apparently it’s a lesson I need to keep on learning.

I’d borrowed the kit off a bike-packing friend, and I knew that ‘lots of people wild camp’. And that’s when the more unhelpful side of comparing myself with others kicked in. You know, comparing apples (people who are experienced) with pears (me, the novice). I realised, only when I was catching up with friends afterwards, that a part of me had assumed I wasn’t allowed to find my trip difficult at times.

Finding your path online therapy

When I was met with the Wow, that’s quite an undertaking – weren’t you frightened? I recalibrated that judgment of myself as somehow inadequate at not immediately being a comfortable camper. And even allowed myself a little glow of satisfaction that I hadn’t been frightened (well, not much).

On the upside, I can see, looking back, that my survival instinct actually prompted me, when feeling a bit low, to be compassionate towards myself and – in the moment – reassure the wearied bit of me that it was OK to find it a bit tough, so that the judgmental part didn’t take over.

Compartmentalising can make me miss the obvious.

The obvious being: carrying stuff is hard work. I know! Who could imagine?

What happened was: I looked at my route before setting off. My longest day’s walk was 11 or 12 miles. Quite a long way, but I knew it was within my capabilities, especially on good paths. I also packed up my rucsac, completely, a couple of days before going, so I could check everything fitted in, and put it on to see how heavy it was. Heavier than I’d usually carry on a day trip, but within my capabilities.

road to find yourself Lucy Hyde therapy

What I omitted to do was to put ‘long day’s walk’ and ‘heavy rucsac’ together. Oops. It didn’t take many miles before I was feeling that, in various parts of my body in turn. Somehow that principle I share with clients, of noticing when you’ve got more than one stressor in your life, cos the impact is greater, fell by the wayside…….which takes me onto my next discovery.

It’s surprising what you can do when you don’t have the option NOT to.

My walk was harder going than I’d estimated, AND it was also fine. By the time I’d realised the miscalculation of effort, I was well into the moors and would have had as far to go back as I did to continue. If my foot (or hip, or knee) was sore, the only thing I could do was adjust things slightly to see if that helped – and to carry on. And actually that knowledge stopped me focusing on the discomfort, and so I wasn’t as aware of pain.

This was a helpful learning for me. I really value listening to my body. But this experience flagged up that I can sometimes allow fear to stop me pushing myself  – in this case anxiety about damage to my body, and worry that I can’t do as much as I used to (probably linked ultimately to a fear of age and even death). It reminded me of the key role that the brain has in the way we experience physical pain (you can read more about the mental – emotional- physical connections of pain here).

sunshine beyond online counselling

I discovered that I can control time!

When was the last time you did nothing? Like, literally, NOTHING? I honestly can’t remember, prior to this experience.

I’ve got much better at giving myself a break over the last decade or so. Gone (well, mostly gone) are the days when I would feel inadequate or a failure if I hadn’t been somewhere new or achieved a significant task on a weekend.  Now I let myself sit and read the weekend papers over breakfast for an hour or two, I potter, I lie on the sofa with a book for an hour.

But even though I don’t think of myself as ‘keeping busy’, actually doing nothing – that’s very unfamiliar. When I was camping, there was around 12 hours of darkness. I was in a tent I couldn’t sit up in. I had limited power and no signal on my phone. So I lay in my sleeping bag pretty much from 7pm to 7am, even though I wasn’t tired enough to sleep (and didn’t, much, even when I was).

And yet, most of that time, I wasn’t particularly bored. I was just, kind of………..there. Existing. Tuning in and out to the noises around me. Noticing my toes warming up in my sleeping bag. Wondering whether it was going to pish down again the next day.

It felt weird to be in that not-doing space.

Time behaves differently when you’re not doing. For many of us, that’s WHY we keep busy, right? We’re often scared of the empty space because we’re not sure what will creep into it. Empty space fosters anxiety, and over-thinking. We avoid it at all costs. The flipside of that is that we keep so busy that times passes quickly, the more so as we get older, and we end up feeling like we’re running out of it!

I felt like my two nights out were way longer than a weekend. So, perhaps a way of stopping time feeling like it’s going so quickly, is to stop ourselves – and just do nothing. How much time just disappears when you’re scrolling through social media, for example?

I’m not sure how easy I’ll find it to do nothing now I’m back home, surrounded by all the things that ‘need doing’, with my phone available to distract me. But I’m going to give it a go.

It’s good to do something new, even if it’s hard.

I feel like I gained a lot from this experience. That’s not consciously why I did it. I wasn’t on some mission of personal growth. And when it was challenging I thought “I don’t know if I’ll do this again”. But I learned some new stuff about myself because it was sometimes hard, and – as I told my therapist later – it feels like this experience is a little resource that’s sitting on my shoulder. I don’t know quite what to do with it yet, but I like that it’s there.

finding your way Lucy Hyde online counsellor

So…..would you take the plunge to do something new?

To be honest, I don’t recommend heading off on your own wild camping experience right now. Winter is coming (if you’re in the northern hemisphere) and nights are colder. But if there’s something you’ve thought you’d like to try but are a bit scared of, or not sure whether you’ll be good at it (hint: probably not, the very first time) I would really encourage you to give it a go.

Final tip:

if there IS something you have in mind – tell someone about it. In one step, this makes it more likely to happen. Getting to the point of telling someone is a move in itself – it can be scary, if you think ‘I can’t back out if I tell someone!’ – yet actually, that’s not true, is it? But if you tell someone you have a dream, it makes it a little bit more real.  It brings it closer. And then it’s more within your reach.

walking in the rain Lucy Hyde walk and talk

References and further info:

Book: A Woman of No Importance by Sonia Purnell

Pain: Not all in your head, it’s in your brain

Focusing and how it can help manage anxiety

How to access more of what you love

Allowing yourself something that you love, wholeheartedly, is an act of self-love. Make a bit of space to give that to yourself.

Sometimes I have an idea that seems ‘new’ and then when I say it out loud, or write it down, it suddenly looks to me like the most blindingly obvious thing, that a child would know. Maybe that’s the point – a child would know, because it’s a simple idea and children sometimes get direct to the heart of the matter without the layers of complication and conditions that adults learn to overlay ideas with.

Anyway, the latest ‘idea’ was the reflection that connecting to something you love can be healing and enriching. Obvious, right? But the key word here is ‘connecting’ – by which I mean mindfully reflecting on the qualities of this loved thing, giving attention to what it is you appreciate and value in it. This mindful attention can enrich the relationship that you have with the loved thing, deepen your appreciation of it, and that in turn can deepen the nourishment that you get from doing it / being with it.

Buillding wellbeing through contact with nature

A couple of occurrences recently poked this notion into my awareness.

One is when I attended a webinar on ‘embodied writing’ by Ann Dowsett Johnston, an author and psychotherapist, who uses Focusing in her writing. (You can read about Focusing in a previous blog I wrote here). Ann led us in a number of exercises during the workshop, one of which was to free-write about something or someone we love. As the ten minutes set for the exercise began to tick away my mind battered around the inside of my skull like a moth trapped in a lamp, flitting from person, to animal, to object – but not settling. At the edges of my mind something was sitting and as I wrote ‘What do I love?’ and came into a more in-body-presence state, that ‘thing’ came into the foreground, and I wrote the following:

What do I love? I love to be in the sea.

Not to go in, not to come out, not the walking to and fro along the street….. I love that feeling, once I’m in the water.

The water is silky across my skin, supporting me. I swim out, out of the cove, towards the horizon. This is never boring! Never do I think to myself “Oh here I am again, it’s just the same as ever.”

Never is it the same.

The water changes…… today it is silvery, a long low swell that takes me by surprise, the shapes of the shadows and reflections abstract and two dimensional on the faces and facets of the waves. Tomorrow it may be milky, churned, grey and opaque, churning and pulling at me, holding me back as I try and push my way through the froth.

Never is it the same.

The land changes as the sea changes – the boundary between them moves and shifts with the height of the tide and the shape of the water and becomes visible and invisible.

I don’t want to leave and I’m scared to stay but in the moment I’m not scared of the sea – only of my own weakness, of getting it wrong. The sea is just there, under me and around me, making way for me, pushing against me. Silver silk slipping and sliding over my skin. Playing with me – slapping me round the head, sucking mischievously at my ankles as I stagger out. Waiting for my return.

Lucy Hyde counsellor with nature

I deliberately haven’t edited this passage, I’ve just set it down as I wrote it, because it’s real and what came to me in that moment.

And having written it, and then reading back over it afterwards, I realised, yes, that IS what I love about swimming in the sea. And although I hadn’t taken it for granted – in fact, I’ve particularly come to appreciate being close to the ‘wild’ over the last 16 months of reduced movement – this exercise, of really paying attention, has given me a new appreciation for my swimming. It’s encouraged me to prioritise it as something I can do conveniently, easily.

Of course there’s other things in my life that I love and that are more difficult for me to do right now, for various reasons, but having brought this one into foreground focus has somehow shifted my perspective slightly from regretting what I’m missing to appreciating what I’m able to do, and prioritising it.

Another example is a conversation I had at the weekend with a green-fingered friend. We were talking about growing, I was asking their advice, we were sharing experiences, practices, plant likes and dislikes – and something about that chat shifted my perspective. I let go of some of the stress that had been sitting on my shoulder, nagging at me about the various gardening tasks that I ‘should’ be doing or had got behind with, and instead took pleasure in the few hours that I then allowed myself to work away in the garden.

It was almost as if sharing the experience with someone else reminded me that I loved gardening, when I had turned it into a chore. (I’m really expert at doing that, by the way – doing something because I love it and then subtly shifting my approach so that one day I wake up and find that what I loved has become a stick to beat myself with.)

The work that I did that afternoon in the garden was the same, but my attitude towards it was completely different, as was my sense of being nurtured by it instead of tired out by it – I’d connected to it in a different way.

Counsellor self-care

So……….. I really encourage you to pay attention to what you love, to remind yourself of what you love, and to pause, notice and connect to what you love. If you’re not sure how to do that, based on my own recent experiences my suggestions are:

Free writing

Set aside half an hour for a creative exercise like the free-writing one I gave the example of above. Use whatever meditation, mindfulness or grounding technique works for you, or even check out the Focusing video on my blog and use the lead-in at the beginning of it, then when you’ve settled in your body, ask yourself ‘what do I love?’ and free-write what comes. (Ann Dowsett Johnstone used Mary Oliver’s painfully beautiful poem ‘Wild Geese’ as a lead-in to her exercise. You can hear Mary Oliver’s reading of the poem here.)

Talking about what you love

Make time for a conversation with a trusted other who loves what you love. Resist the small talk……. Instead talk about what you love, even if it’s just for ten minutes. Then, set aside a little time to think about and reflect on your conversation. Was there anything that surprised you, that you hadn’t realised was important to you about this activity, or this object? Has it changed your relationship with what you love?

Sharing with others

Start an appreciation group. I started a Facebook group a couple of years ago sharing recipes and meal ideas. Sharing with other people who love what I love (cooking and eating food) has been really stimulating, the ideas of others reminding me of things I’d forgotten or introducing me to new notions. Posh food, comfort food, food out of cartons is all welcomed. You could try a WhatsApp or Signal group of a few friends, or simply meeting up with folk, like a more traditional book group.

Give 5 minutes to reflect

Simply set aside five minutes at the finish of the day to ask yourself ‘What have I loved today and why?’ If you find it hard to think of anything go reeeeally small – a conversation, a much-needed cup of tea – and re-experience that enjoyment. Give yourself a bit of time to wonder how you can have another moment like that tomorrow.

I often don’t know what I think about something until I’ve put it through my typewriter.

Ann Dowsett Johnston

Joy is really important to wellbeing – the antidote to burnout. Paying attention to what you love helps you notice more opportunities to find that joy, enables you to be more open to joy where it arises. Allowing yourself something that you love, wholeheartedly, is an act of self-love. Make a bit of space to give that to yourself.

Lucy Hyde walk and talk therapist

Further information

Focusing

Ann Dowsett Johnston

Adding joy to your life

How to relax

Get some tips on how to find a healthy balance if you struggle to relax.

I’m just back from a week’s leave. I’m being strict with myself this year about taking regular and frequent breaks. It’s been an interesting and useful experience; it was very much a conscious decision, and because a bit of me thinks it’s ‘self-indulgent’, I’ve been challenging that thought by talking about it – getting it out there to counteract any tendency to feel ashamed about it.

So many people I encounter – not just clients, but colleagues and friends too – find it difficult to prioritise time off. This has been the case especially in the last year where the usual ‘reasons’ for taking leave, many of which are connected to other people – visits to family, plans arranged with others, booked holidays – have been unavailable, leading to many people realising belatedly that it hasn’t occurred to them to take a break for a loooong time.

Online therapy to help you relax

I feel a sense  of responsibility to look after myself because of my work with clients; I use myself in my work, I owe it to my clients to offer value for money, and I’m less effective when I’m less healthy or emotionally unwell. This makes it ‘easier’ for me to take time off out of a sense of duty. That’s just the way it is for me; I’m a people-pleaser who worries about getting it wrong, and while I’m alert to that being a driver, changing it is an ongoing, slow process. In the meantime, if it encourages me to take time off, then I make the most of the result, without worrying too much about the initial impetus!

Exactly halfway through my leave I felt I had to make a significant decision – ‘how best to use my week off’. Essentially, having had the opportunity the day before to meet up with family for the first time in nearly 6 months, my attention up until then had been focused on that; and indeed, it WAS a highlight – being able to spend a few hours together eating, and walking, outside, filled me up. But after that, I had empty days in front of me and a sense of responsibility to not ‘waste’ them.

Of course, reality-checking after the event, I realise that the idea that there was a ‘right’ choice was a myth, and it was being faced with the emptiness of unplanned time that felt disorientating.

Lucy Hyde walk and talk counselling

I was talking to someone a few days later who said they experienced a similar sense of pressure at weekends:

“During the week I’m just busy with work and eating and sleeping and recovering, then at the weekend I feel I have to make the most of it and often I end up not enjoying my time off because of thinking how else I could be spending it, and it’s almost a relief when Monday comes and I just slot back in to automatic work pattern.”

I’ve heard people say they need a week off just to get used to being on holiday, to let go of the feeling they should be ‘doing’, after which they can start actually enjoying it. But sometimes we only have a week, or even a few days (or a weekend).

And it can spiral into self-criticism too; for example I felt anxious about how to use my time off, then felt guilty for being bothered by such a first-world problem – ‘poor me, I’ve got a break’. It can sometimes take me a while to pull back, to recognise that yes, I am fortunate, and no, feeling guilty about it doesn’t make one jot of difference to people worse off than me, any more than enjoying it would.

So how to deal with that anxiety and fear of getting it wrong? For me, learning to tolerate that thought or feeling, rather than distracting myself from it by getting busy, has helped. I recognise it – not immediately, I’m not that expert – for what it is, a thought generated by my perfectionist tendencies, rather than an actual real-life risk. Being able to sit with it for a time helps it feel less urgent.

Lucy Hyde walk and talk therapist

A few other things that I’ve found are useful:

1. Using my Focusing practice to sense bodily what I need.

You can read more about Focusing at How to ease coronavirus-related anxiety. ‘Clearing a space’ was a particularly useful exercise in my week off. Once I had settled inside myself I used the phrase ‘what’s stopping me feeling really fine right now’, seeing what appeared, acknowledging it and putting it aside. This is particularly helpful when there’s a few practical problems or life events that take up mental space. You can read about clearing a space here.

2. Giving myself options.

Sometimes ‘sensing into what I need’ can bring an urge to hide away or retreat. While hibernating is OK, I know from previous experience that connecting to the world by getting outside, getting moving, or being with people is often better at getting me ‘unstuck’, even if it feels like an effort initially. Sometimes it can be helpful to give myself options – ‘How do I feel about X? or Y?’ – and seeing what my gut response is. If I have a week off, making just one plan for something I usually enjoy takes some of the pressure off figuring it out.

3. Remembering that there’s no ONE right answer.

The reality is that whatever I feel I need, it has to fit in with life. Yes, it might sound great to be able to always follow my sense of what I need at any moment, but realistically it’ll be dependent on time, resources, other people, etc. So finding something that’s, say 60 – 70% good right now, rather than looking for the perfect answer, is fine. Good enough for now IS actually, sometimes, the perfect answer. I was talking to a friend who said:

“I had a few things I really wanted to do, things I like doing, but I felt like going back to bed. And when I was sitting in bed, I was thinking ‘Oh, I’m not doing x, y and z.’ And I had to remind myself that I WAS doing something else that I needed, by just being. But it took effort to do that.”

Lucy Hyde online counsellor

4. Noticing when I’m content!

When I can notice that I’m enjoying the moment, that’s really bloody useful. Because if I can do more of it (right now) then it’s fulfilling a need. That happened to me when I was sitting in the sun reading a book and – having finished my coffee – I thought ‘This is really nice. Oh, actually, I can carry on sitting here!’ It sounds so obvious, but it can be tricky to catch yourself at these moments – particularly if your pattern is that you can only do the thing that you LIKE once you’ve finished the task that you don’t (and it can lead you to NEVER getting round to the thing that you like).

5. Finding a balance.

On my week off, Covid restrictions at last allowed travel round Scotland. There was a temptation to rush around the place seeing people, to recharge my social battery. But one thing I’ve learned in recent years is that although I need people, I also need solitude.  Someone told me recently:

“I’ve learned I need to consciously rest more to actively counteract those stress hormones…..I love lying cosied up with a book……and when I feel a bit sluggish or melancholy from that quiet time I know it’s time for a little activity”.

Most of us live such busy lives of doing that it’s no wonder we find it difficult to change gear and slow down. It’s also normal, as you get older, for transition from one thing to another to take longer – and that includes transition from one way of being to another.

It’s OK and normal for relaxing to not come naturally AND there are things that you can do to support yourself to let go a little. Although I’ve shared some of what works for me I’m really interested to hear if there are ideas or tips you have for how you help yourself relax.

The most important thing, I think, is that ANY relaxation is better than none. So if I can let go of ‘getting it right’ and allow it to be Just Good Enough For Now, that really helps. And if that letting go only lasts for half an hour, or a few moments, that’s OK, because that’s relaxation time I wouldn’t have otherwise.

Lucy Hyde therapist helping you relax
Photo: Jon Gerrard

If reading this has been useful, you might also like to check out my blogs on Focusing for anxiety, and tips for dealing with stress. And if you want to share any ideas, or would like to try working with me, please get in touch.

7 ways that reading books can improve your life

We read to know we’re not alone

William Nicholson, ‘Shadowlands’

When I want to escape to another world, I do it through reading.  For that half-hour, I’m not in my own life anymore, I’m inhabiting a different world, where I really care deeply about the experience of someone else, where I feel their feelings, even becoming a different person. 

I believe reading can change your life in different ways.

Throughout history, education has literally changed people’s lives, and there is a political and humanitarian argument for literacy being a right for that reason. While I completely subscribe to that (after all, restricting educational access to males, or to white people, has been a way of subjugating different parts of societies in order to keep power in the hands of the few)- what I’m talking about here is at a more individual level.

I grew up with my nose in a book. We didn’t have a telly in my house, a fact that I was resentful of at various points in my childhood. (If you want to know how to nurture a child’s belief that they’re the odd one out or will never belong, deprive them of the ability to engage in playground conversations about last night’s Grange Hill episode – I used to watch TV round at my best friend’s house, but Grange Hill came on just at the time when I had to go home for my tea.)

Reading as therapy image-annie-spratt-unsplash
Image Annie Spratt on Unsplash

However, setting aside the injustices of my upbringing for a moment, what I did have plenty of was books. Apparently even before I learned to read, my parents would be woken up each morning by me calling from my cot “Light on and books!” I’m not sure I would describe reading as a favourite activity – it was, simply, an indelible part of my life.

When I grew up and left home for uni, then work, reading time was squeezed by the demands of adult life – and by my developing tendency to, at some level, believe that ‘unproductive’ time was self-indulgent. I wonder now if there’s some connection for me with reading being ‘lazy’ because it’s a sedentary activity. I still really enjoyed to read – but I wouldn’t let myself do it as much as I liked – I was always too busy.

I was well into my 30s when I started a bookgroup with a friend. Having to read a book a month, for that, encouraged me to make more time for reading. I think the logic probably went something like this: “Reading a book for bookgroup isn’t self-indulgent because I’m answerable to other people.” But I began to feel resentful that everything I was reading was chosen by others (we take it in turns to choose a book) and so that prompted me to carve out more time so that I could read what I wanted to read too. 

My time was often constrained, especially when I started psychotherapy training alongside work – and transferred my ‘shoulds’ about productive behaviour to the self-expectation of reading books by therapy experts. But at least personal therapy, and psychotherapy training, helped me to recognise what a strong ‘Critical Parent’ lived in me – telling me what I ‘should’ be doing – and I gradually started to allow myself to trust my instincts into what I wanted – or needed – once more. 

In recent years, reading has become a form of self-care, and I feel more connected to that little Lucy who liked to escape from the real world with a book.

One of the things I’ve appreciated about lockdown is that I’ve been able to indulge (that word again!) that love, because there’s not so much than I can do (regardless of whether I want to or not), and because so much of my work is screen-based, that looking at a page instead is a way of looking after myself physically as well as mentally.

The experience of recently ramping up my book-reading has prompted me to reflect on how I experience emotional benefits from it.

How is reading a form of self-care?

1. It can ease symptoms of anxiety, stress and depression

Reading a book that you can lose yourself in gives you a break from life. I don’t generally advocate distraction as a technique for managing anxiety or depression, as it can shore up a habit that if there are feelings that are too uncomfortable to deal with, they get ignored or suppressed, and however that might feel comfortable in the moment, those feelings don’t go away; they just get stored up.

Having said that, if you get into cycles of overthinking, ruminating, feeling anxious and trying to think your way out of it, interrupting that cycle can be helpful. The fight or flight hormones (that are running through your body as a result of some part of you panicking that it needs to do something to keep safe by ‘fixing a problem’) get a chance to dissipate. That allows your breathing to steady, your blood pressure to drop, your muscles to relax; there’s a physical as well as mental and emotional benefit.

Note – I’m recommending a book you can ‘lose yourself in’, that will allow you to switch off, so preferably one unrelated to the situation you’re worrying about or trying to fix. I know only too well that when my imposter syndrome kicks in, and part of me believes I’m not a good-enough therapist, I feel a pull to read ‘professional stuff’ – about techniques, or presenting problems or theory. That kind of reading has its place – but not here.

This is about taking care of your whole self, not about fixing the problem your busy brain is worrying away at.

self care through reading Lucy Hyde counselling
Image: Thought Catalog on Unsplash

2. It helps you make connections

There’s nothing like being immersed in another world to help me develop my empathy for what someone else, with a completely different life experience from me, might be feeling. The process of doing this by reading is different from that of watching a film because the brain engages and involves itself in a different way – for example, reading about riding a bike activates the parts of the brain that would be involved in riding a bike.

Even if you’ve never left your country or particular area of the world, you can visit other places through books and build your understanding, and that will help you connect to others – virtual travel broadening your mind. If you want a further stretch then reading in another language from that of your mother tongue can also help you shift your perspective, because the way that different languages behave shapes the way that people think.

Obviously this has potential to benefit others – if you meet people from different places and with different backgrounds from you, you’ve developed your intuition and empathy to respond to them – but there is also a benefit to you, because of the emotional experience of connecting more deeply.

You might make connections to experiences too, perhaps to something you didn’t notice you were missing. For example, I’m often drawn to books that are embedded in the landscape or nature and reading them benefits me in at least two ways; firstly, I get something of that experience of actually being in the place described, of feeling that awe or wonder or amazement; and secondly that they remind me to notice my environment when I’m outside, often at quite a small scale – they prompt me to rediscover the world around me and to really notice where I am right now, grounding me.

3. It improves your communication skills, helping you be heard and understood

Reading develops your language skills because it introduces you to different ways of expressing things you may experience around you, and to new vocabulary. Many languages – and certainly English – have a huge vocabulary providing potential for saying one thing in a myriad of very subtly different ways.

This isn’t just about ‘sounding more intelligent’(although I have had situations in my life where wielding words has helped me level a power dynamic) but also about being understood. If you can express yourself in different ways, it gives you more options when talking about difficult subjects, or when asking for what you want in your important relationships, and this can make a real difference to your ability to be clear about communicating your needs, setting boundaries and for saying No gently.  

4. It can build and deepen relationships

As mentioned earlier, reading can be a way of connecting to others, but there’s another way that reading can develop relationships – through sharing your reading experience. That became important to me in the last few years when I moved away from the UK to live elsewhere for a while, and then, a year after returning, found myself in a different kind of isolation because of Covid 19 stay-at-home restrictions!

The book group I’ve been a part of for 15 years has been a precious lifeline over the last 4 – a steady mooring rooted in my diary when I’ve felt adrift and isolated. We’ve continued to meet and talk and argue and laugh via webcam when we haven’t been able to do it in person. (Obviously this would apply to many other types of groups as well as reading ones.)

Reading together with others has encouraged me to try and explore other worlds that I might not have done (even while complaining about being made to read about the real life drama of a college American football team, for example). It has given a focus away from the other struggles of life for a few hours a week. It has brought the joy of connecting through shared experience.

Our book group is the best in the world, which helps. Though I may be a bit biased.

5. It’s an overt message to yourself that you matter

Pausing to read a book is a commitment to yourself that you are important and deserve this time. It’s just not possible to read a book ‘busily’. (Actually, one member of my bookgroup, realising that they weren’t going to get the book finished on time, decided to listen to the audiobook at 4 x normal speed. They arrived at the meeting in a wide-eyed manic state having got quite a different sense of the book from the rest of us, and they didn’t recommend it as a relaxing activity.)

It’s one of the most common things I hear when friends say ‘Oh, I love reading, but I just don’t have the time’. I used to say it myself – especially while studying, when I would make time to read neuroscience tomes, but not to pick up a fantasy novel.

No one else is going to make that time for you. If you think you don’t have the time to read because that’s not ‘productive time’ – think again. Think of the longer-term benefits of allowing yourself to take a break, to do something that you enjoy, something that relaxes you, that slows you down.

6. It can teach you how to be healthier and happier

Personally, I very rarely read self-help books. Anything with a title that seems to be saying ‘This book will change your life’ is a definite turn-off (note to self: don’t title this blog ‘reading this will change your life’).

Having said that, I do read books to educate and ‘improve’ myself. Like many other white people, over the last year I’ve been reading more literature by Black authors on addressing my privilege and unconscious racism, and of course, that hasn’t been comfortable. But without building my tolerance to that discomfort, I can’t engage in the antiracist behaviour required to mend that disconnect between ‘thinking I’m a good person’ and ignoring the benefits I enjoy by living in a white-centred society – i.e. I see it as enabling me to become more true to who I think I am.

Lots of people find self-help books useful, either because of the practical steps that they introduce to doing things differently, or even because – as mentioned above – picking up a book that promises to improve your life sends a little message to yourself that you matter.

If you’re attracted to self-help books, but find that they don’t seem to bring the change that you want, it might be useful to reflect on whether the subconscious message you’re directing at yourself  is ‘you’re not good enough and need to change’ rather than ‘I want you to be happier because you’re important’. See if reframing this shifts the sort of book you want to read!

7. It can take you on a voyage of self-discovery

In another form of self-help, I believe books can help you become more understanding of yourself and more aware of what you need. If you have a strong reaction when you read a book, taking some time to reflect on this can lead to you learning more about yourself.

What is it in this book that triggered that anger, or feeling of being overwhelmed with love, or despair, or feeling a bit lost, or defensive? Did something about one of the characters speak to something in you? Was it a sense of affinity that you felt with a particular event?

I sometimes find that a book that I didn’t feel I was particularly enjoying at the time of reading can stay with me for days or even weeks afterward, returning to my mind as if there’s some kind of message there that it has for me. I can be prompted to notice something that I’ve let go in my life, that feels missing or that I need more of, by my reaction to what I read. Even if I can’t pin my finger on exactly what it’s about, spending a little bit of time alongside that part in me that responds strongly feels therapeutic, as if it’s meeting a need of something that wants attention.

Reading tastes are so personal, and what some people find therapeutic, others may feel is just too much hard work. Here’s 7 books that do it for me in different ways.

Reading as self care Lucy Hyde online therapy

1. The stress-buster: ‘The Bear and the Nightingale‘ by Katherine Arden

A book (or series – the Winternight trilogy) that I really lose myself in, this story has the flavour of a Russian folk tale, with a very strong young female main character – who is only too aware of her own vulnerability. A fantastic illustration of resilience, set in a wonderful magic realist sweeping fantasy.

2. The connection-builder: ‘The Shadow King‘ by Maaza Mengiste

A book that has stuck with me long after reading, this novel is set during the real life events of the Italian invasion and occupation of Ethiopia in 1935, and tells the story of the women who fought in that war. It pushed me to read more about Ethiopian history as I realised how little I knew of one of the world’s oldest civilisations, and how much my perceptions of a country had been influenced by growing up in the 80s amidst white Western media depictions of famine victims.  

Reading as self care Lucy Hyde online counsellor

3. The language-developer: ‘Growth of the Soil‘ by Knut Hamsun

One of my all-time favourites…….a novel, but also a poem to the land, and humans’ relationship to it. Every time I read this book I’m reminded of what it is to be human, and how imaginary and transient many of my worries, fixations and anxieties are. Books like this give me a way to talk about and develop my understanding of what really matters to me at my core. This book is an antidote to social media life of the 21st century.

4. The great book group read: ‘Girl, Woman, Other‘ by Bernardine Evaristo

This was almost unanimously popular (an unusual occurrence!) in my book group. Evaristo manages to succinctly capture on paper so many different lives, of mostly – though not entirely – Black British women. For me this was a fantastic combination of entertainment and exposure to lives different from mine, but also, in sharing our responses to the characters, and which ones we loved, a great book group read. 

Self care via reading Lucy Hyde counselling

5. The pure enjoyment gift-to-self: ‘The City We Became‘ by NK Jemisin

For escaping into new worlds, NK Jemisin, a science fiction / fantasy writer I’ve only recently discovered, takes some beating. (As a Black woman, she also challenges stereotypes of what a sci-fi writer ‘looks like’.) This book is set in a New York that is – and isn’t – just like the real one, and as well as having some full-on sci-fi concepts that take some bending your head around, is chock-full of strong female characters.

6. The self-help aid: ‘Rewild Yourself‘ by Simon Barnes

The closest I’ve got to self-help recently, Rewilding Yourself is a gentle book that brings you closer to nature. In a year when taking cruises to Alaska to see arctic wildlife hasn’t been an option (even for those who can bear to burn the fossil fuel to do it), this little book is a great introduction to becoming a small-scale David Attenborough in your own back garden or field.

self care with books Lucy Hyde therapy

7. The self-discovery tale: ‘The Left Hand of Darkness‘ by Ursula Le Guin

Le Guin was an amazing writer – her Young Adult Earthsea books were a part of my growing up – and I recently discovered her adult fiction. I never read one of her books without being given pause for thought – about the assumptions we make about what is ‘normal’ or ‘real’ based on our experience, environment and upbringing. She deals with philosophical questions with a light touch. The Left Hand of Darkness – written in the 1960s – challenges concepts of sexuality and gender with a delicacy that is impressive 50 years later.

Finally…………………

If you think you don’t like reading – perhaps you just need to give yourself more of a chance. Start with something that fills your soul. Read a love story, or a children’s book. A graphic novel (I’ve just finished the fantastic ‘Persepolis’ by Marjane Satrapi, which tells her early life story, as a girl growing up in the Iran of the 1970s and 80s). When I need the reading equivalent of curling up under a blanket and hiding from the world, I read Joan Aiken’s children’s books, even now. Reading takes practice – but the rewards are so worth it!

It’s cheap, too, especially if you’ve got a library that is operational at the moment, or by making use of charity shops, or Betterworldbooks – although it’s also great to support authors by paying full whack for their labour, when you can afford it.

Of course, reading isn’t the only way of taking care of yourself!  But it sure has benefits that can include learning more about yourself, giving yourself a break, connecting to others and building relationships.

If you’re a reader who struggles to prioritise time to read as much as you’d really really like to, I hope reading this may have helped you to recognise the longer-term benefits of doing what you love.

I’d love to hear what reading means to you, if you feel reading has a therapeutic benefit, and whether there are particular books you return to again and again.

And if reading isn’t enough, and you feel you could benefit from learning more about yourself through talking to someone, please get in touch here.

Books and wellbeing Lucy Hyde counsellor

References and further reading:

Reading V television

When I read in another language

Which language has the most words?