Often we come to counselling with a general feeling that things just aren’t quite right but sometimes we know there is a particular issue we want to address. Below are some of the common issues that counselling can help with.
It is perfectly normal to worry about certain things from time to time. But sometimes we feel anxious all the time. This sort of anxiety makes it difficult to cope on a daily basis as we may feel fearful, unsure of ourselves, have difficulty sleeping and have physical symptoms such as palpitations and panic attacks (see below). Sometimes we know that there was a specific incident that started the anxiety but other times it is just the build up of lots and lots of stressful situations that overwhelm us. Counselling can help with anxiety by helping us understand and manage our physical symptoms, find strategies to help us relax, and explore the underlying causes.
Bereavement and loss
We all grieve when we lose something or someone important to us. This can be a person we loved or it can be something like a job, a marriage, our health. Grief affects people in different ways. Anxiety, helplessness, anger and sadness are all a natural part of the grieving process as we are forced to confront a reality that we don’t want to be true. There is no quick fix but talking can be a good way of dealing with these feelings. Often people are very hard on themselves when they experience a loss so being kind to yourself and allowing yourself time to grieve is important. Sometimes our faith in the world can be severely knocked by loss and this can be explored in counselling. Gradually we will reengage with the world.
Depression is characterised by low energy and interest in things. It can feel like there’s no point to life and make us withdraw and isolate ourselves. It can result in problems with sleep and appetite and sometimes be accompanied by thoughts of death or suicide. Combatting depression is hard but requires action. Connecting to people, exercise, getting out and about, following a routine can help. Everyone is unique and exploring depression with a counsellor can be very beneficial. In particular looking at negative thought patterns, how we think about ourselves and building up levels of support can give us useful tools to use on a day-to-day basis. Often a period of depression is a response to a particular set of events and it can help to explore this together with a counsellor.
Panic attacks can be very unpleasant and frightening. They can be characterised by a shortness of breath, the heart racing, adrenalin levels rising, shaking and sweating sometimes in response to a specific trigger like a smell or the look of a particular person, but often for no apparent reason at all. It’s as if the body is getting ready to fight the ‘tiger in the room’ but there is nothing there. Some people describe a heavy weight as though someone is sitting on their chests, some people say they feel like they are actually going to die. These attacks can last for minutes or several hours and are exhausting.
Learning what is happening to our bodies can really help to minimise panic attacks. Often our anxiety levels rise as they are happening because we are naturally alarmed by the symptoms. Learning to sit through panic attacks as they happen can lessen the symptoms and working on the cause of anxiety in counselling can help to alleviate them altogether.
Relationships are extremely complex and we each bring our own hopes and dreams and past experiences into the mix. Learning to recognise our own needs and having the courage to ask for people to meet them can be very challenging as we risk hurt and rejection. Having a strong sense of ourselves and our self-worth is central to healthy relationships and our ability to meet other people’s needs. Working on how we relate to others in counselling can significantly improve our relationships with the people around us.
Unresolved childhood difficulties
Our identities, our feelings of being good enough, our ability to deal with our emotions, and feeling secure in ourselves are all affected by our childhood experiences as well as experiences in later life. Sometimes we feel we had a happy childhood but there was a couple of things that we feel are still affecting us today or we may have had a difficult childhood with experiences of abuse or neglect which have affected us profoundly. Counselling can provide a safe and non-judgemental space where these feelings can be explored and processed leaving us free to move forward in a positive way.
Self-harm or suicidal thoughts
Self-harm is a common coping strategy. When a person is trying to cope with uncomfortable and distressing emotions they often turn inwards and hurting themselves becomes a way of dealing with the emotional pain. If you are self harming as a coping strategy is it important to stay physically safe. Talking to someone about your feelings, even a little, can help to reverse the very private and self-sabotaging need to self harm and create more positive coping mechanisms.
Suicidal thoughts can often centre around the idea that ‘it would be better for everyone if I wasn’t here’ or ‘I just want it all to stop’. When we are overwhelmed by emotional pain with no apparent solution this can feel like the only way forward. It is important to recognise this as a valid response to extreme stress and to talk about to someone you trust e.g. a friend or family member, a counsellor or your GP. Feeling suicidal often comes with a feeling of shame and social stigma which stops us sharing our thoughts with others. Talking about it and exploring other solutions to the distress you’re feeling will help to minimise these thoughts and help you feel more in control of your options.
When we are experiencing any event which is traumatic for us our bodies activate our stress response to protect us. At its simplest this is the ‘fight or flight’ response most of us have heard of. Our fear levels spike and our bodies instinctively choose the best response for our survival. Post traumatic stress occurs when this stress response continues long after the danger has past. This can make it difficult to concentrate, sleep and function on a day to day basis as we are on a permanent high level of alert. It can also create ‘flashbacks’ where we feel like we are experiencing the trauma all over again.
Sometimes talking about the initial trauma is too difficult as it puts us back into a very vulnerable state again, and it is not always necessary to alleviate the symptoms and move on. In these cases talking about the present difficulties can be just as effective. For others processing the thoughts and emotions of the original trauma with a counsellor or other trusted person will be very helpful and allow the mind to file it away safely like any other memory.