December 2020 – Change is Possible
Part of my self-care practice is yoga. As I stretch, I become aware of tension and discomfort I am carrying and feel it loosening and releasing. I become aware of pain as I let it go. In therapy sometimes clients become aware of pain they have been carrying as they start to let it go. Sometimes clients come to therapy without a defined ‘issue’ to work on but just feeling like everything is a bit joyless, tiring, frightening, baffling. We talk about their life in the present, their past and any thoughts or hopes for the future. A picture emerges of beliefs they hold about themselves and their lives. Sometimes we develop beliefs or coping behaviours in childhood which were necessary and appropriate at the time to survive physically or emotionally. In adulthood we do not realise we can set them down and proceed with our lives. I work with clients to discover discomfort or pain they are carrying in the form of beliefs that they are unlovable, incapable, not worthy, their dreams are unrealistic and immature. If you believe you are unlovable this can affect how you treat yourself. If you believe you are incapable this can prevent you from daring to try. If you believe your dreams are unrealistic and immature this can prevent you from taking steps to create a life you want. If you believe you are unworthy you may spend your life trying to prove (to who?) that you have worth. In therapy we look at how these beliefs were formed whether in one harsh experience or slowly and almost unnoticed over a long time. We sit with the beliefs and ask if they are still relevant and useful. Sometimes we do not realise we are carrying pain until we start to release it.
This can happen at a wider societal level also. The 2020 experience we all lived through may have increased your awareness of old beliefs and patterns of behaviour which were causing pain. Many of us had less ‘busy’ lives, even if still working hard, with less distractions and less avoidance of our thoughts and feelings. This may have been extremely uncomfortable. Pre pandemic in Ireland some were well positioned and did not have to question our social structure very much. Some were so busy making ends meet they did not have time to question how our society could be better structured. Some were experiencing disadvantage or discrimination in its varied forms to the extent they felt they did not have a valued opinion or voice. In 2020 a lot of the busyness stopped and a lot of people had more time than ever before to think. Something I learned during a Masters in Gender Studies in UCD back in the day was that it can be difficult to see a system when you have grown up within it and are in a position of sufficient comfort that you have not been motivated enough to question it. Or if you are in a position of such discomfort that you are entirely occupied with survival and you do not have band width to reflect and imagine how the system could be changed.
In 2020 we saw that things which were previously just a fact of life could be changed. Commuting hours to and from an office is not after all automatically part of holding down a job and something to just get on with. Security for people renting accommodation takes away a core source of anxiety and is possible if we decide as a society it is a good idea. That being part of a community can be good for quality of life and there should be time for that in our weeks. Easy access to green spaces is important for mental health and it is worthwhile keeping plenty – not a minimum sufficiency - of parks in cities for everyone to enjoy. Our homes should be designed to accommodate rich and fulfilling lives - we need space. The system of busyness stopped and a lot of people experienced a different way of living. It could be worthwhile to remember what we learned about how a system can be changed. And then think about how we can support a fairer less stressful economic and social structure through who we vote for, what organisations we donate to or give time to, what shops we buy from, how we interact with our neighbours and participate in our community. The personal experience of our society is also political.
I'd like to choose how I hear the news. Take me to a park that's covered with trees. (Don't) Tell me on a Sunday please.
An email came in at the start of the month with the subject ‘October News’ and I had a moment of disbelief that it could be October already. Yet there we were and what a month it was including that Sunday evening bringing news that a Level 5 lockdown was being advised to Government. I don’t know what you were doing that evening, but I had been having a deliberately quiet and restorative day, even tuning to a cheesy mellow radio station which I use when ensuring my Sunday evening is as soothing as a bowl of ice cream. That news landed into my kitchen like a mental health bomb without the usual days of public debate process which allows us all come to terms with an idea. No warning. On a Sunday. I would like a word with whoever gave that story for dissemination that Sunday evening. I would like to know if they had any thought of the public mental health impact of the sudden news. In fact it was not even news of a decision, it was announcement of a level of uncertainty and served no purpose on a Sunday evening. I appreciate all involved in creating and implementing covid policy are working long hours and long weeks and everyone is doing their best. Yet had they forgotten mental health and that one of the ways many of us are keeping in any sort of mental or physical shape is through putting a structure on our week. Creating real down time to recover, relax, refresh. Taking the Sunday if that used to be a regular day off. The following week I repeatedly found myself humming to imagined altered lyrics from the Andrew Lloyd Webber and Donald Black musical - (Don’t) tell me on a Sunday please.
Music is one of the tools I use to balance my mental and emotional state. I use music to help me concentrate, relax, or liven up and exercise. It can be very effective if you are feeling stressed, low or overwhelmed. Switch off the news channels, switch off the phone-in shows and definitely switch off the shock-jocks of which we have a sprinkling in Ireland – they are literally paid to try and push your buttons, get you texting in to their station. Switch to an all-music station or go on youtube for example and seek out playlists. Type in what you are looking for eg music for concentration / relaxation / positive mood and so on. For example, I enjoy youtube playlists while I work on admin or research here in the office of 256 Swords Road. The background ‘music for concentration’ gives the busy part of my thoughts something to play with, while I can turn the rest of my attention to the work for that day.
It is remarkable how much what we direct our attention to impacts our mental, emotional and by extension physical health (blood pressure, stress hormone levels, clenched muscles). By all means stay engaged on political and social justice issues. We can’t tune in and drop out all the time. But I do encourage you to build in time at the start and end of each day for switching off from the news or from the voices of those whose job it is to stir strong emotions, raise fears and create heated 'debate'. Focus on what is important to you each day, see if you can choose the attitude with which you enter your day. Remind yourself at points during the day that very often you can choose your internal state no matter what other people around you are up to. See if you can give yourself time at the end of the day to switch off. Some grounding exercise that brings you down out of your head and back into your heart and body can be good such as stretching, walking, taking a shower, cooking. Even better if it is set to relaxing music. Take care of yourselves for November.
Tell me on a Sunday please. Songwriters: Andrew Lloyd Webber, Donald Black
Tell Me On A Sunday lyrics © Universal Music Publishing Group
It is not uncommon for therapy clients to know very little or nothing about their therapist’s private life. This is often deliberate on the part of the therapist to help create a therapy space where the client does not feel any topic is taboo because of what they know about their therapist’s past experiences. However in 2020 figuring out how to cope and navigate the global pandemic situation is something I and my clients have in common to some degree. It is a piece of information each of us have about the other’s life, so I feel it is appropriate to be a little more personal in this blog post than on other topics.
September went by so fast it is a blur. There was a deal of additional administration as I went through the annual re-accreditation process with the Irish Association for Counselling & Psychotherapy. Reaccreditation is a requirement for membership of IACP and involves counting client hours worked in the past 12 months, what continuous professional development action I completed, reflection on my professional development over the year and setting my objectives for the coming 12 months. I am happy to say I received confirmation back that my re-accreditation as a therapist and a counselling supervisor has been approved, so that is all set for another year. September/October is also tax return time for self-employed people. I was glad to get that compiled and off to my accountant for checking in good time. This all meant that September was off the scale busy and I think I hit a wall with my physical and mental energy.
During the initial covid restrictions period from March-June, I felt part of my brain or my consciousness were stuck at March. Somehow the enormity of what was happening caused part of me to freeze, while at the same time I was very busy with work and keeping things going. I do not know if the stop/freeze was a disconnect through overwhelm, or whether it was caused by the incongruence of the gravity of the pandemic amidst an almost holiday scene of beautiful weather, peaceful streets, people home and a very loose routine. All in all a very strange time. In some ways March 2020 feels years ago. At other times it feels only last week.
Some people say they have thrived getting fit, learning new cookery dishes, baking bread, doing up the house, beautifying the garden, learning languages. I considered it a success that I got out of bed every morning and kept the therapy centre open, networking with other therapists all figuring out how to cope and navigate the various levels of restrictions. If anyone reading this also feels they scraped through the past 7 months instead of blossoming in lots of lovely down time enjoying a slower pace of life – I completely empathise. The reason for sharing this is I have coping skills and strategies to help me recover when I feel I am wading through muck – I work with mental health for a living. I know how to get out of the muck and generally how to fall into the muck less frequently and less deeply with each experience. I have been reflecting on how I found the past months tough going and wondering how many others are there quietly struggling with growing anxiety and despair, perhaps without coping strategies. I was grateful when mental health was deemed an essential service and I was able to turn up both online and in person to meet my therapy clients and continue to provide that hour of support a week.
It seems covid-19 will be around for a while so we are into the longer haul of trying to stay well. The virus infection is not the only danger. There are other health effects from being more sedentary, comfort eating, sedating through alcohol and other drugs or generally avoiding the awful reality of what is happening. I’m not blaming anyone, my old habits made a strong comeback rally too. I feel a sense of urgency for those of us who found it tough to take action now as winter approaches for our mental, emotional and physical health. Our immune systems and stamina (physical and mental) need building up. A health expert on radio recently caught my attention – going for a 30-minute walk every day can help reduce blood pressure. It is funny how a snippet can land correctly in your ear when you are ready to hear it. Although my fitness dropped dramatically this year, I have been putting on my runners again and heading off from the therapy centre for a lap of Ellenfield Park or the very pretty suburban streets around Santry. It does me good, increases energy. I tell myself I knew exercise was good for my mental health but decide not to beat myself up about it this time. Another piece of advice I remember is one of the most important things as you age is to keep moving. Go for a walk every day, move about the house, keep active doing housework as long as you can. Stretch. It is good for you physically and it really helps with managing anxiety and balancing your mood too.
I felt grateful that I had coping and recovery strategies, learned from working in mental health. If you feel you could do with some help at the moment but are unable to connect with mental health supports either through an online session or in person, there are some other good things you can do to care for yourself. Here are some ideas:
Phone a family member, friend or neighbour. Just making a few minutes to ‘check in’ on someone by phone can help you to feel connected. A sense of belonging and being seen in some way is one of our basic needs. And it might do them some good too.
Get out for a walk during daylight if you can.
Bring your attention to what you can do for yourself and loved ones. Focus on the small things you can control to some extent to make your day-to-day better. Take a break from covid news if you can. It is happening anyway whether you listen to the news all day or limit your news intake to the nine-o’clock bulletin.
ALONE have a COVID-19 advice and support line for older people. Phone 0818 222 024 from 8am to 8pm everyday Monday – Friday. Also see their website alone.ie
County Councils around the country have helplines if you need help getting food delivered, or transport to your GP or to a testing centre : www.gov.ie/en/publication/2bd8ba-how-can-i-volunteer/#contact-details-for-local-authorities
headspace.com is a mine of useful nuggets for your mental health
alustforlife.com has some lovely mental health tools and articles for all ages
In pre-covid times, August was often a very quiet month for counsellors and psychotherapists. August was when many took a good long break, even the whole month, before returning refreshed for autumn and winter. People considering starting therapy often decide to wait until autumn when the children are back in school, or they are back from their own holidays. Autumn and winter then are busy times as many people find their mental and emotional health is affected by the dark mornings and evenings, the rainy days and nights that make them turn inwards. Old clients return for a few sessions to check in and set themselves right for winter, while new clients appear. (Of course many with introvert tendencies can find much to enjoy in the darker months – but that can be the subject of another blog post!). August in this year of covid was a bit different, as every month since March has been. The new autumn clients started appearing early this year, having waited through lockdown to come in and not wanting to wait any longer.
Still, there was some time for reflection and processing the experience of living through a national emergency situation. One of the things that really struck me is something reiki therapist Alina had mentioned to me and that chimed with my own experience. Remember back when we all were staying within 2k then 5k of our homes, and out for daily walks in our own neighbourhoods? Remember when the weather was glorious and the trees were full of blossoms? There were many people out walking alone, I guess maybe either because they lived alone and so walking was just another thing to be done alone during lockdown - or they wanted to get away from the other people in their house for just one blessed hour of peace. I noticed people who walked with their eyes to the ground, or who would look the other way when we drew level going in our opposite directions. For some this behaviour may come from anxiety, or self-conscious insecurity that makes it almost impossible to make eye contact and so meet another human person even for 3 seconds as we pass each other on our daily walk. Others are grieving. Some are so frightened of catching the virus themselves or carrying it home even looking at other people face on can feel too strange. Others are living in a space too small for everyone to reasonably be at home for long periods at the same time, so their hour out walking is the only bit of peace in their day and they cannot be dealing with other people in that hour too. I am not judging. We probably all have days when we just cannot be dealing with other people at the moment.
It is not always going to be a good idea or even appropriate to make eye contact and smile at someone you meet out on your walk. It could get you followed home by some creepy character. Bearing that in mind may I suggest to anyone of any age who is not having a horror show of a day, who is not in the depths of grief, who is not experiencing high anxiety or completely absorbed with worry – anyone who is just out for a walk to get some exercise and vitamin daylight – maybe think about looking in the direction of the person walking alone coming in your direction. Use your judgement to assess if they appear to pose any threat to you. If no possible threat is apparent, how about you give a smile and a nod. No need to even speak. How about we acknowledge the shared experience of living through this pandemic that has made so many of us scared and lonely. How about we make eye contact and let someone know they are seen for three seconds. That brief acknowledgement and tiny human connection might even be enough to make someone’s day better.
July was a busy month at 256 Swords Road Holistic. Two new therapists started here, a psychotherapist and a craniosacral therapist. Alina who is a massage, reflexology and reiki therapist has been able to start back also. The counsellors and psychotherapists were able to continue working all through the pandemic whether online remotely or in some cases in person but of course the therapies that require physical proximity were not able to resume until the covid-19 restrictions were eased. As this is a holistic therapy centre, I am very pleased to see the variety of therapies resuming with acupuncture, counselling & psychotherapy, massage, reflexology, reiki, and craniosacral therapy all able to happen in person again.
At the end of June/ beginning of July we had a visitation of bees, which started appearing down the chimney and into the office. This was somewhat alarming as I sat in the office but it would have been more difficult if they started making their way into the therapy rooms and buzzing around! Of course honeybees are very important and luckily, a beekeeper was able to advise me to smoke them out of the chimney which would not harm them. A first time for everything, I smoked the bees out using a sage smudging stick and with the support of Pamela the shamanic practitioner (also reiki and bioenergy healing practitioner) who carried out energy work at a little distance.
If you look up the symbolism of bees, you will see a variety of meanings in different traditions but the interpretations share the characteristic of being generally positive. The meanings relate to industriousness, persistence, abundance and fruitfulness, as well as getting rid of toxicity, working with community and society, finding a balance between work and rest, and enjoyment of life’s beauty. I have been thinking about that as I observe the therapy centre filling up and attracting more therapists and clients since the covid-19 lockdown. Also, many people who were not directly impacted or touched by the coronavirus say they rediscovered an enjoyment of nature and of family. The lockdown period helped many to realise a slower pace of life really suited them. The bee’s message about finding a balance between industriousness, appreciation of our community and relaxation is very welcome as we are learning to live with the impact of covid-19 in our society and our families. It seems like a cycle has come to an end and we are brought back to think about what we really need to live well, and what that means individually and as a community.
June was the first anniversary of 256 Swords Road Holistic Therapy. I moved my psychotherapy practice here after the June public holiday in 2019 and started the process of learning my way into the role of therapy centre manager and all that goes on behind the scenes. Step by step, more therapists started to find their place in the booking schedule and the place was takingshape nicely. With the covid-19 pandemic restrictions, things suddenly became incredibly quiet as I and the other psychotherapists moved to online zoom sessions and phone calls, and the acupuncturist, bioenergy healer, massage therapist and reiki practitioner were unable to work for some weeks. It is great to see the acupuncturist and psychotherapists returning to the therapy centre with the easing of restrictions, resuming appointments with safety precautions. The other holistic therapists have moved their practice online where possible and you can see their contact details on this website. I hope they can resume work in person and we will see them again in the therapy centre with their clients.
There has been a new routine to get used to around covid precautions, hand washing, cleaning contact surfaces, keeping physical distance. We do our best to make the therapy centre as safe and clean as possible. We were already by appointment only so therapists know when their clients are due and meet them at the front door. This naturally keeps the number of people here at any time down and helps us ensure social distancing. It is a bit different to before covid-19, but it is surprising how quickly it feels normal, or almost normal. It is important to pay attention to our mental, emotional and physical health now. We have lived through a traumatic experience and the uncertainty of what awaits is also very distressing for many. It is great to see businesses opening and social life coming back. Some people have found the lockdown slowdown beneficial and feel changed for the better from the experience. It is also true that many have been impacted in other ways by the experience of lockdown, we have been through a huge event and while we can recover and grow again we will not be the same as before. Many of us have been bereaved. Many traumatised through working in the helping professions and support services in the pandemic. Many have been highly stressed through managing children, schoolwork, paid work or highly stressed through loneliness and isolation through the lockdown. I believe it is important to acknowledge what you have been through and the impact it had on you. I believe it is important to do that as soon as you can, so you know what trauma you are processing. Unprocessed trauma can go under the surface and reappear years later, when you might wonder why it feels you are losing your rational self. At least now in this moment of 2020 we know why it might feel like you are mentally, emotionally and even physically wounded. And even just acknowledging that is a good start and can itself help.
Many therapists across disciplines have started working online and holding sessions through video conferencing applications like zoom. I had not heard of zoom before the covid-19 restrictions but it is very easy to use and I and my clients have got used to it quite quickly. If you have been able to navigate the internet this far and are reading this blog page you will be well able to figure it out with the support of your therapist. I use it on my laptop and placing the screen more or less at eye level helps make the therapy session feel quite natural and like the original face-to-face meetings. If you want to start counselling and psychotherapy there are a lot of different organisations you can look at, here are just some of them:
The Irish Association of Counselling & Psychotherapy (IACP) www.iacp.ie,
The Irish Association of Integrative and Humanistic Psychotherapy (IAHIP) www.iahip.ie,
The Irish Association for Play Therapy & Psychotherapy (IAPTP) www.iaptp.ie,
The Addiction Counsellors of Ireland (ACI) www.addictioncounsellors.ie,
The Irish Council for Psychotherapy (ICP) www.psychotherapycouncil.ie.
The HSE has a useful web page on how to access support during these covid-19 restrictions on our movement and the need for keeping our social distance:
I know these are anxiety-inducing times and we have to mind ourselves and each other through it. Even if you come through this unscathed, without being bereaved by covid-19, it is a hard slog emotionally and mentally. If you are finding this hard, that is quite normal because it is hard. Even if you are getting used to your isolated new life already, it is normal to have days when the worry, fear or anger seem bigger than you.
It can help to create a structure for your day. This means deciding beforehand what your day or even your week will be shaped like. Get up at a certain time, get showered and dressed, have breakfast, if you are not self-isolating at home and are able to go for a walk while keeping 2 meters from anyone you meet then go for that exercise. Work, study, housework, small repairs around the house, gardening, telephoning and skypeing your family and friends. Do not listen to the news and discussions all day long, switch on music, podcasts, guided meditations instead. There is no point in you stressing about covid-19 all day. Switching off and taking care of yourself does not make the covid-19 pandemic any worse. You do not have to keep an eye on it 24 hours a day.
Think about what you do not want to resume doing when this period of isolation ends, what activity, busyness, relationships or thought patterns do you not want to pick up again. What will you replace them with in your life? What are you missing and does that mean they are more important to your core values than you realised?