The Build Up
Late last year, I bit the bullet and did something I probably should have done a long, long time ago – I booked my first appointment with a therapist. For quite some time before that, I’d been feeling increasingly low, lacking motivation and just generally unstable, not to mention incredibly anxious to the point where it was interfering with my daily life to an extreme degree. When I ask myself why it took me so long to seek help, I guess the main reason was fear. As silly as it may sound, I was terrified that I’d be made feel stupid, that my issues wouldn’t be taken seriously and that I’d be judged. In reality, that wasn’t the case whatsoever and I now regret not tackling the issue sooner, which could have possibly prevented a lot of unnecessary stress and anxiety.
The breaking point that spurred me to book that very first appointment was one Wednesday evening about 6 months ago, where I found myself lying in bed, in the very same position since that morning. I’d lost all motivation to even get up and go about the most simple of tasks in my daily life. A combination of debilitating anxiety and extreme periods of feeling ‘low’ left me mentally exhausted and empty. The zest for life I previously possessed was nowhere to be seen. I was eating to survive, not through enjoyment, sleeping (with difficulty) to pass the hours away. I was no longer living, but merely existing, and at that point, I realised I had to do something about it.
5 Things Therapy Has Taught Me
1. Not Every Therapist Will Suit You
It’s just like everything else in life, hairdressers, personal trainers, tutors – different people have different approaches to their jobs and personalities can have a lot to do with this. People often presume that therapists and counsellors all read from the same page and give identical advice for each type of problem but that’s far from true. Some therapists are more ‘matter of fact’ in the way they speak to their patients, while others are more gentle and softly spoken.
Neither way is better than the other, it all comes down to what you, the patient, react best to. The first therapist I saw was no doubt, a very wise and educated man, but his attitude towards my concerns was quite abrupt and I just didn’t feel overly at ease speaking to him. Later, I began speaking to another therapist, who had an incredibly calming voice and gentle aura about her, and instantly I felt at ease discussing my thoughts with her. If at first, you feel you can’t open up to a particular therapist, don’t give up on the idea of therapy. Try another therapist, and another, until you feel that sense of security and ease, it will make the whole experience much easier for you.
2. The Overflowing Glass Analogy
During a session where I discussed in great length, my feelings of extreme anxiety, my therapist explained the concept of anxiety to me in the most perfect way. Basically, we must view our bodies as a glass, and anxiety levels as water. For a person who doesn’t suffer from anxiety or panic disorders, day to day stresses will only add drops to that glass, so when a particularly stressful event occurs, the glass won’t overflow and they can therefore manage their anxiety levels.
On the other hand, someone (like me), who becomes anxious over a variety of everyday occurrences, will always have their glass half filled with water, so when something overly stressful happens, my glass will immediately overflow, leaving me unable to handle my anxiety levels, resulting in a panic attack or even a series of them. As soon as this analogy was explained to me, it all fell into place and I was able to understand why different forms of stress effect different people in different ways. Avoiding unforeseen/uncontrollable stresses such as sickness, job losses or exam panic is usually impossible so learning to minimise everyday stresses is key in reducing the frequency/severity of panic attacks.
3. The Past CAN Come Back To Haunt You
I’ve always been guilty of bottling up my feelings to the point where they wreck havoc with my mind. During one particular session with my therapist, I was asked to think back to my earliest memory of feeling anxious and on edge. It wasn’t until I did this that I discovered what an impact previous events, from years ago, were having on my current state of mind. Just because you feel anxious or low now doesn’t necessarily mean those feelings are being caused by an event or situation that just occurred. The past has a funny way of reoccurring in the present, which is why it’s so important to address all of your issues with the same level of care and importance, regardless of whether they date back to last week or 10 years ago. An unresolved issue or traumatic event left unspoken of will only continue to fester, and the longer you leave it untreated, the more difficult it will be to address it when it does come to the surface.
4. Honesty Is Key
When I first began speaking to a therapist, I was very reluctant to open up completely. Sure, I’d taken the first step, I was sitting there in front of her, but part of me was still refusing to let down my guard, that shield I’d been gripping onto desperately for so long. I guess I was afraid that if I opened up completely, I’d never be able to stop, that the words would just pour and pour until all of my fears and heartaches were spread all over the table, but looking back, that’s exactly what I needed to do – let it all out.
Going to therapy and only sharing half of the problem is futile. It’s like putting a plaster on an infected wound, sure it’ll stop the blood escaping but the infection within will continue to do its damage. Opening up all at once isn’t easy and I’m not recommending you share every single traumatic experience in one session but intentionally avoiding a particular area will do you no favours. If the thought of opening up about certain things is making you feel uneasy, try writing them all down, categorising them and ticking them off as you address them, the act of ‘achieving’ by ticking off from a list as you complete will do wonders for your mind too.
5. Love Yourself First
One of my biggest weaknesses is that I’m the sort of person who’s ‘in love with the idea of being in love’. By that I mean, I often jump into things without thinking them through, getting involved with someone half-heartedly purely in the hope of feeling more ‘complete’. Opening up and discussing my innermost feelings has taught me that in previous realtionships, the issue wasn’t that the other person didn’t care about me enough, it was that I didn’t care about me enough.
Being happy and content with yourself has to come first, because if you aren’t in a good place alone, how can you expect to be, with someone else? I also learned that expecting another person to mend your heart without actually addressing the issues yourself is never going to work. Having a loving partner won’t magically erase the painful memories of your past, but working through those issues, learning to love yourself and THEN extending that love to someone else – that might just be a recipe for success.