We're very excited to be welcoming Mindfulness Mentor Di Robertson on to our team at Lucid Psychotherapy. She brings an extensive background in practicing and teaching mindfulness that will be relevant to anyone who wants to deepen their practice, develop personally, or tap into the huge benefits of mindfulness for addressing the challenges of our lives. As well as mindfulness, Di brings a strong background in ecology which will be of additional relevance to those who are engaged or want to be engaged around sustainability issues. Read more about Di here. Perhaps as important as her skills and experience are the warmth, integrity, and connectedness that are very much a part of Di.
Bringing Di on board as a mindfulness mentor is also a shift for lucid psychotherapy, as we bring the first practitioner on to our team who is not a mental health professional. This is part of our continuing exploration of how we can create change in our society that includes, but is also at times broader than traditional individualistic psychological work.
Continuing this series of posts on defence mechanisms in counselling and psychotherapy, today we'll look at the manic defence. For more information on defence mechanisms, check out the first post in this series.
Very broadly, the manic defence is an attempt to do things or think things quickly, to create a sense of busyness that shuts out unpleasant feelings. More specifically, often the feelings that are being shut out are feelings of powerlessness or hoplessness, which are often being shut out with the contradictory feelings of euphoria, goal oriented activity, and control or mastery. Like other defence mechanisms, there really is an intelligence to this, it is very hard to feel hopeless whilst energetically pursuing a meaningful goal. It works. In my opinion the manic defence is also one of the most widespread defences, at least in Western culture where being busy and constantly doing are a virtue.
For many people powerlessness and hopelessness in the extreme can manifest as depression, including lack of energy and pervasive sadness or numbness. The manic defence is often thought of as a defence against depression, though many consider the manic defence to be different from bipolar - or what was once called manic-depression.
In the psychotherapy or counselling process I most often notice the manic defence when a client talks a lot. In particular, when the client's talk is tangential, and is a response to us beginning to talk about painful feelings. When appropriate, I might notice this with a client, by saying something like: "Do you notice that just now as painful feelings began to rise up, you began to get anxious, and you distanced yourself from these feelings by talking fast and changing the topic?" In such a situation, with a client who is ready and willing to work on their defence mechanisms, it may be an act of kindness for the psychotherapist to actually interrupt their client's torrent of words and to help them see their manic defence in action. Thought it may be painful in the short term, experiencing painful feelings rather than shutting them down through mania may at times be a better long term choice. The cost of overusing the manic defence can be exhaustion, spiralling anxiety (because the problems are not dealt with), and difficulty connecting emotionally with others.
For those who are actively working with their own defences of mania and busyness, mindfulness can be an effective practice. Usually this will start with moments of mindfulness in the psychotherapy room, such as the above example when the psychotherapist helps the client to be mindful of their reaction to painful emotions in the moment. Some may take up mindfulness practice in their daily life. By just noticing and not amplifying the flow of thoughts, over time the thoughts slow down, and the usual experience is relief at the lifting of a burden that couldn't even be fully recognised until it lifted. Mindfulness practices that involve being still (rather than for instance walking mindfulness practice) have the advantage of creating physical as well as mental stillness, which further helps with the manic defence.
An interesting Australian article here discusses use of the manic defence by mental health professionals. An example given in the article is the use of antidepressants by GPs and psychiatrists to treat depression. Here the response is to do something, to prescribe something that stimulates rather than to deal with the painful feeling directly. Though I cannot personally comment on prescribing, and don't discourage use of antidepressants, this article is thought provoking. Amongst psychologists, psychotherapists, and counsellors, I see the manic defence at work at times, when the clinician out of a sense of helplessness or anxiety throws behavioural tasks or exercise at a client. Once again, though behavioural interventions aren't bad (I use lots of them myself), when they are being given to clients as a reaction to the clinicians own anxiety, I believe that the client on some level can feel the emotional disconnect, and is affected by it.
For an introduction to defence mechanisms in counselling and psychotherapy, please read earlier posts in this series. If you're familiar with these ideas, or have already read earlier posts, please read this post about the defence mechanism of acting out.
Compared to some of the more subtle or slippery defence mechanisms that we've discussed, such as projection, acting out is generally fairly easy to recognise. In fact, usually when people act out, it is with fairly extreme behaviours that are difficult not to notice! Acting out involves behaving in an extreme way as an alternative to feeling and tolerating an uncomfortable emotion.
Common examples include people who act out by cutting themselves, to avoid overwhelming feelings, or to avoid a feeling of numbness. (People also cut for other reasons, but acting out is commonly part of the dynamics of cutting.) Another example is that of a person who hits their partner, rather than feel and tolerate anger, powerlessness, or shame.
Acting out is a defence mechanism that a counsellor or psychotherapist will often, in one way or another, help their clients to change, simply because acting out can cause a lot of suffering both to the client and to those around them.
As with other defence mechanisms that are easily noticed and potentially destructive, acting out can bring with it a lot of shame. The normally polite person who acted out by drunk dialing their boss and abusing them will feel mortified the next day, and will probably find it very difficult to get help from a therapist. It is important that the therapist does not avoid talking about the destructive behaviour (because it really is a problem that needs to be dealt with), but it is also important that the therapist conveys a lack of judgement or condemnation.
Given that most of us at times resort to the defence of acting out, and given that often the acting out will be something we later regret, what helps? One of the most common things that helps with acting out is learning to use words rather than actions to express our feelings. This may sound simple, but often it's not.
To use words to express our feelings we need to first be able to identify what we're feeling. Learning to identify what we are feeling can be difficult. It may help to have a therapist who can express what we might be feeling, so that we can decide if that fits or not, and we can learn the language to fit the emotion from how the therapist has been talking to us.
Perhaps we know what we're feeling, but don't feel confident about expressing it. A psychotherapist or a counsellor may help with this by helping us to find clear and assertive language, or to deal with the fear of how others might respond to our expression of feeling.
So, to summarise the above, therapists can help us with acting out by helping us to use words rather than actions to express ourselves. However, this may not be the most important approach for everyone. Some people know what they're feeling, and how to find words to express this, but when under stress find it difficult to avoid acting out anyway. Such people may find a DBT program helpful, particularly skills such as mindfulness that help regulate impulsivity and the intensity of the emotion that is at risk of being acted out.
Through mindfulness practice we let go of the impulse to judge or analyse or act on thoughts and feelings. We do this in mindfulness each moment, when we notice our distracting thoughts or feelings, and bring our attention back to whatever we're focusing on, whether it be our breath, body sensations, a view out the window, or a piece of music. Mindfulness has been shown to be effective in reducing the impulsivity even of violent and impulsive offenders, so it clearly really does work.
Not only can mindfulness help us to not impulsively act out an overwhelming feeling, but we also find that through accepting rather than judging our emotions, we begin to feel soothed and the painful emotion reduces in intensity. There are many styles of psychotherapy and counselling that integrate mindfulness into the therapeutic process, including DBT, ACT, and MBCBT.
Some people seem to fear that through learning to regulate their emotions rather than act them out, they will lose the dramatic or creative aspects of their personality that they value. My experience is the opposite. I have found that through doing this personal work people boost their creative or dramatic potential by being able to add a degree of measured skillfulness and control to the spontaneity that they so value.
So, if you're thinking about changing your habit of acting out, you have everything to gain, and nothing to lose. That said, you may need to learn to assert yourself more, because it is possible that your habit of acting out developed because that's what worked to get people to understand that you needed help.
What would it be like to have an uninvited guest come to stay... indefinitely. This guest isn't just with you at home, they come with you for walks, to work, when socialising with friends, in fact, everywhere you go, this guest tags along. Not only does the guest come and observe, creating a certain amount of awkwardness in you and self-consciousness, but the guest keeps speaking up with opinions and judgements. In fact, the guest keeps up a running monologue during your entire day, only to be drowned out occasionally by television or other stimulation that is loud enough to drown out that incessant voice.
Sounds like a nightmare, doesn't it? Well, welcome to your life, or your own mind, to be more precise. Those who have practiced a little bit of mindfulness will probably recognise the above description, because it is such a common experience to begin some sort of mindfulness practice and feel quite shocked at just how much our internal monologues just won't shut up.
Whilst mindfulness practice at first highlights our inner commentary, persisting with practice will help bring relief. We cannot permanently evict our uninvited guest, as much as we might like to, but we can slow down the commentary, learn not to buy into everything it says, and generally have a more spacious and compassionate experience in how we talk to ourselves.
Integrating mindfulness into the therapy and counselling process can be very empowering for clients and therapists, particularly because sometimes what is required isn't analysing, understanding, or changing something in our lives. Sometimes it's just being aware or our lives and ourselves, and accepting what we see. Mindfulness is a tool for doing just that.
This is the last in a series of posts on the relational approach to psychotherapy and counselling for common mental health issues. This post covers anxiety issues.
Like other mental health issues, there are different approaches to dealing with anxiety. The medical approach has it's advantages, but as anyone who has become hooked on sedating or anxiety reducing medication can tell you, it is not without its risks. Another approach, that of mindfulness based treatment for anxiety issues, can be very effective. By learning to control our attention through mindfulness, we can empower ourselves to regulate our physiological anxiety responses, and to deal more effectively with anxious thoughts. Neither of these approaches, however, deals with the relational context of our anxiety.
Our experience of panic, generalised, or specific anxieties is often triggered by relationship with others. In particular, we may be anxious of conflict with others, being vulnerable with others, around displaying certain emotions, or around intimacy in general. With the guidance of a psychotherapist or counsellor, we may be able to approach whatever our personal forbidden territory is, that anxiety keeps us away from. Usually when we approach this territory, we discover that it is not what we thought it is, and we can begin to get more familiar and comfortable with the anxiety provoking situation in our relationships.
In particular, as a therapist, I would watch for moments when a client re-enacts an anxiety driven pattern with me, their therapist. For instance, a person who goes to an old pattern of care-taking in relationships, when feeling anxious, will probably do that with me, their therapist, sooner or later. Working with these moments when the issue is "live" between therapist and client can be some of the most potent opportunities for healing and transformation.
Please let me know what you think about this, and stay tuned for further posts on other topics.
Mindfulness is becoming increasingly well known in the west, and it utilised in spiritual and religious practice, but also in physical and mental health care, social services, education, even in the military and business worlds. Mindfulness can also help your relationship, and you don't have to see a couple's therapist to get these benefits.
The basic practice is to be still, bring a relaxed yet focused attention to your breath, and gently release distracting thoughts, feelings, or sensations. Try doing this for ten minutes. It's endlessly subtle, but you can do it. Release any judgements about whether you're getting it right, or what it's supposed to feel like.
Try doing this for ten minutes with your partner, then spending ten minutes after that by using the calm non-judgemental mind that you've cultivated, to talk with your partner about the important stuff. Stick to the time limits, and take responsibility for your own mind. When you get pulled into judgements or reactivity, let go!
Let me know how it went by leaving a comment, or sending an e-mail.
Recently I’ve been noticing how feeling tired or drained doesn’t always relate to how much sleep I’ve had. There can be days where I’ve slept in and gotten at least 9 hours sleep consistently to ensure that I’m paying off my sleep debt, as I like to call it, and I can still feel tired and low energy, as if I’ve had only 6 hours sleep. So what’s going on? Is there more to tiredness than just our physical needs?
Although I know that feeling tired is influenced by more than how well we’ve been taking care of our physical body, I often forget that psychological and emotional factors can completely outweigh the physical. I find it fascinating that feeling stressed about getting everything done and worried that everything won’t get done in time, really can make us feel really tired. It’s like a protest from our bodies about the state of our lives.
The other day I noticed my drained, low energy and decided to sit mindfully for a while to see if that made any difference – I didn’t have time for a nap and I often can’t manage them anyway. So I sat mindfully for 30 minutes and afterwards I noticed a significant increase my energy levels. It’s pretty incredible that sitting mindfully, doing nothing fancy other than paying attention to our self and surrounds in a non-judging way, can really transform how we feel. So next time you notice you’re feeling tired and drained, maybe sitting mindfully somewhere quiet for a while could really help ease this feeling, making your day that much more enjoyable.
Posted by Selina Clare.
Whilst the Lucid practice is still very much in a start phase (see last blog post), I've become excited about continuing the theme of the last post by addressing continuing, or the mid phase of any relationship or project. This involves maintaining momentum (on a project), or maintaining intimacy or energy (in a relationship), as well as hopefully increasing these factors.
So, here we are in the middle, where the initial novelty or excitement has gone. The honeymoon in a relationship is definitely over, as our projections drop away and we discover what we don't like about a partner, and what they don't like about us. We've discovered that however exciting that initial project idea was, that it mostly is coming down to following up many little individually boring or even distasteful steps. It's easy and very human to want to leave for someone or something more exciting - to re-enter the intoxicating beginning phase. This may be the case particularly if we've never seen what is possible in traversing this territory well. This leaving impulse may be compounded by an unconscious fear of merger - losing one's sense of self and independence by truly committing.
So what is good about this phase, when it's going well? In one word: flow. Strangely close to the experience of the mundane, the boring, or the routine, is the experience of flow. Studied by psychologist
Csikszentmihalyi, flow is when some or all sense of self drops away in complete immersion in an activity. It is not passive (like watching television), but not self conscious or intentional either (as the beginning phase tends to be.) The activity (or partner in a relationship) is like a dance partner, which we respond to intuitively and highly effectively.
Flow is inherently rewarding and rejuvenating. If we cannot access it to some degree, some of the time, we are likely to leave the project or relationship, or wish we could. Why is flow so accessible in this phase? Because the mentally stimulating initial excitement or drama of the beginning has dropped away. Flow needs some degree of focus and mental quiet. Some ways of attaining this are by shifting perspective, as done in therapy, and/or via mindfulness practice (the topic of future posts.)
Thanks for reading. Please post a comment about your experience of the middle/maintainance phase, or flow. Subscribe to RSS feed, or check in a few days for the final in this mini series: endings.