HOW I WORK
It can sometimes be difficult when choosing a therapist to find a clear and concrete explanation of the theories and ideas that shape their practice. As psychologists and therapists we all too often hide behind jargon and labels which don’t really tell you that much about how each practitioner understands mental processes or how their treatment might lead to a greater sense of well-being.
For this reason, I’ve sketched out below FOUR FACTORS which I have explored, researched and worked on with hundreds of clients and patients from all walks of life over many thousands of clinical hours. I’ve also made sure that all of these apply to and work for me! I would never expect my clients to do a anything that I wouldn’t be willing to do myself.
What I’ve tried to give you below is an overview of how we would start to process and help you with whatever issue you might bring to our sessions. I believe that engaging with these four factors are the key ingredients to any effective course of therapy, although as in any good recipe, the amount of each ingredient, as well as how we use them is also crucial.
Although I focus on four factors, this really isn’t a one-size-fits-all model. I do think though that it’s good for us to have some guiding principles right from the start that we can both agree on.
FACTOR ONE: OUR CURRENT (OR LONGSTANDING) LIFE CHALLENGES OR STRUGGLES
My understanding is that we are usually willing to look at, and pay for, therapy because we are stuck or struggling with a situation or issue (or even a bunch of things) that we can’t get on top of by ourselves.
Our minds are incredibly good at solving problems. But not all problems are alike. Being-human is not the same kind of problem as “How do I travel from point A to B in the fastest possible time?” Or: “What do I do if I get a puncture en-route?”
You may even have noticed that your mind is so good at problem-solving that it wants to “help you out” by doing 24/7! What might have started out as some genuinely useful reflections or “mental notifications” on the part of your minds can sometimes turn against you in a way that feels tormenting or tortuous.
One good thing about therapy is that we can talk about those areas in our lives where we are stuck and struggling with someone who has a mind separate from ours. A therapist can help us to see where our minds have become so entangled with an issue that it is starting to deplete us or defeat us. Even if your therapist has a mind quite similar to yours (which s/he probably does, human minds being fairly “standard” in terms of how they work – especially when it comes to stress and strain and how we try and get around it), just talking through an issue with someone who has no agenda for you, other than wanting to help you to be more at peace with yourself and your life as it is, can often be immensely valuable.
FACTOR TWO: BEFRIENDING YOUR NERVOUS SYSTEM (DEVELOPING BETTER EMOTIONAL REGULATION AND RESILIENCE)
Our ability to respond to and recover from the stress and challenge of daily living is one of the most fundamental pieces of our well-being puzzle. And in order to do this, we often need to get at what’s actually happening “under the hood”, not just in terms of what the mind is doing, but via the whole nervous system.
Don’t worry, we don’t need to become neuroscientists to do this. But I do think it’s important to give some time in sessions to developing skills to help you more reliably move into productive, calm, and resourceful states, as well as to taper off or quieten down those less pleasant “nervy” states such as anxiety, depression, or other out-of-sorts feelings.
I like to use a gear-box analogy here to think about our nervous systems – which includes of course our brains or minds. When the terrain of our lives changes, as it often does, sometimes on a daily, or even hourly basis, we need to be able to work with our nervous systems and their sometimes jittery or dejected responses, rather than against them. Just like when driving, depending on what others on the road are doing, where we’re going (see Factor Four: The Life MOT), the current state of our vehicle, and how fast we want to be travelling, we are always shifting gears to make our journey as pleasant as possible.
This means: getting better at recognising different nervous-system states or modes, and knowing how to bring ourselves back into a safe and regulated place when we feel unsafe, unhappy, anxious, or upset in some way.
A “happy”, well-regulated nervous system translates into a happy, or at least happier life. Especially when combined with the other three factors on this page.
FACTOR THREE: THE IMPACT OF TRAUMA ON OUR LIVES
Sometime we can be struggling with issues that have their roots in traumatic or difficult situations we’ve experienced in our lives. Fortunately we all belong to an extremely resilient species. Since time immemorial we have rebounded from relentless wars, countless disasters (both natural and man-made), as well as violence and betrayal in our own lives.
Sometimes though our autonomic nervous systems (see Factor Three) can get “stuck” in past traumas, just like our minds can get stuck and weighed down by present-day struggles. For this reason, we might need to do some work using EMDR or other forms of trauma-focused therapy to help you come to terms with some of your traumatic life experiences.
FACTOR FOUR: THE LIFE MOT
A moment of crisis, as painful as that always is, can also be a time for us to re-make ourselves and try new ways of thinking and living.
Therapy is a good place to do this LIFE MOT as I call it, and often this is where I start with clients after we’ve talked a little about those areas of their lives where they’re struggling or suffering in some way.
We all want to be peaceful and healthy. We want to be happy or contented, to experience some form of love and kindness in our lives, as well as to lead a life which is in some way, rich, full and meaningful.
But in order to lead this kind of life in whatever way we envisage it, we need to be clear about our values, and where/how we want to invest our precious time and energy.
What I understand by “values” is this:
- how we want to be and act as human beings
- what we want to stand for
- how we want to relate to the world around us
- where we want to focus our time and energy
If we are not clear about these, we can sometimes end up giving our precious/limited time and attention to activities or mental states that don’t really serve us.
As you can see from the above picture, YOU are at the center of the three life domains because your psychological and physical “roadworthiness” will most likely affect the other important domains of Work (including personal projects and creative pursuits), as well as Relationships (friends, family, colleagues, romantic partners, and even online or virtual interactions). Like every valuable thing, YOU require maintenance and care, which takes time and some effort. Are you taking adequate care of YOU at the moment? What might that look like? Factor Two (Emotional Regulation) is key here, but so are lots of other things like diet, exercise, maintaining good relationships, or repairing those relationships that are in disrepair.
If you are out of sync with your most heartfelt values, and/or unclear about what those values are, your body and mind might alert you to this mismatch by feeling unwell in some way. It sucks to feel this way, but is also often very valuable feedback which we can then use to help you feel better and more on-track.
These four factors might seem a little bit overwhelming to begin with, especially when we just want to get some clarity on our lives and start feeling better. For this reason, it’s important to make sure we use these different ingredients in ways that are most useful for you, both in the short and long term.
As with any recipe, one can make a very simple and delicious dish in 50 minutes, but we can also cook up something together that is sustaining and beneficial for you beyond whatever number of sessions you choose to have.