Counselling and psychotherapy have for many decades been referred to as ‘the talking cure’. Thanks to the increasing weight of evidence from neuroscience research, it is now increasingly being acknowledged that this is a very poor definition of what constitutes effective therapy (and in practice, a very limited way of helping clients).
Good therapy is actually ‘an affect communicating and affect regulating cure’ (Allan Schore). What does this mean? It means that good therapy is a process whereby the therapist attunes to the emotional system of the client helping them understand what that system is saying and then enables the client to learn to regulate their emotions so as to not become overwhelmed or too stressed.
Stress has become a very negative word in recent years and many of us believe that what we should do is minimise stress as much as possible. Whilst it is true and fully acknowledged by the NHS that too much stress can lead to psychological, emotional and physical health problems, too little is not good for us either.
We all need stimulation, excitement, engagement and challenges to enable us to feel like we are living a fulfilling and meaningful life. However, it is when these ‘stressors’ start to become too much that we can become overwhelmed and ‘stressed-out’. When we are stressed-out, our anxiety levels increase, we shift from being able to field demands on us to feeling like we are drowning. Most importantly though, is what starts to happen with our autonomic nervous system (ANS) as we start to feel stressed: our heart beat increases; our breathing becomes shallower; our pupils dilate meaning we literally cease to be able to ‘see the big picture’; and our system moves through readiness towards a ‘fight or flight’ state.
This fight or flight state, more technically known as our ANS moving from parasympathetic, to sympathetic engagement, is designed for us to deal with immediate threats such as, in evolutionary terms, a sabre-toothed tiger hunting us down. It shuts down non-essential systems and focuses on us simply trying to survive. When this engagement of our fight or flight is happening regularly, or even on a continual basis, all our systems are under enormous stress and something will eventually need to give.
How can we help?
Returning to the principle that therapy is the art of attunement – of emotional system to emotional system communication and regulation – in the short-term counselling or psychotherapy can help you bring things back into perspective, to step back from the stressors and feel heard, understood and validated.
We all have different ‘fight or flight’ thresholds and feel different responses to different stressors. For example, the prospect of giving a presentation to 100 colleagues can feel exciting to one person (their ANS moves into readiness) and for another it can be paralysing (their ANS becomes overwhelmed and freezes up). Much of how we respond is influenced by past experiences, or trauma, which can be worked through, and much is influenced by how we perhaps simply did not learn at a very young age how to regulate our emotions – we were insufficiently emotionally attuned to and insufficiently emotionally validated.
Longer term work around stress is a three-fold process of experiencing emotional attunement and validation and learning to do this for ourselves; learning to self-care and identify significant stressors and manage them better; employing resources such as a daily meditation practice, healthy diet and focusing on good sleep.
We can only learn to really self-care once we feel entitled to our emotions (through validation), can trust that we can feel our feelings without becoming overwhelmed by them: rather than being a problem, emotions tell us when we want or need more or less of something or, in the case of anger, when a boundary of our is being crossed.
Once you have become more confident in self caring, you can start a process of becoming curious about what is that specifically helps you in managing stress, staying on top of your emotions whilst being guided by them, able to recognise and protect your boundaries and increase your overall tolerance for stress.
To find out more about how Brighton & Hove Psychotherapy can help get in touch with us today and arrange your initial consultation.