Episode 32 – Counselling… a place for insight and change

written by Joanne Couture (Counsellor, Beyond Neurofeedback Technology Coach) on 19/03/20

Episode 32 – Counselling… a place for insight and change

00:00 / 31:10

“Real change comes when people are enabled to use their thinking and their energy in a new way, using a different system of thought, different language, and having fresh visions of the future.”(Dr. Scilla Elworthy – three time Nobel Peace Prize nominee) 

This quote rings true for me as I think of my work as a marriage and family therapist. Everyone who comes through my door to check out my counselling services is seeking change, real change. He or she needs a safe place to tell their story and be heard by someone other than family or friend. She or he wants to regain a sense of control over the emotions that come up when facing daily challenges; emotions that are often connected to something that happened in the past and is causing distress in the present. And, most of all, this client wants to deal with everyday challenges with personal agency and self-efficacy: making choices and decisions, adapting to and coping with difficult situations, talking about his/her needs and desires while maintaining meaningful relationships and, in so doing, creating a future that is more meaningful and fulfilling for them. 

When our heart starts racing; when our breathing becomes fast and shallow; when our voice changes octave; when our body movements shift to collapse, rigidity, rage, or defensiveness; we can be sure that our emotional brain is expressing itself. In therapy, we are positioning ourselves to activate our rational brain which helps us understand where those emotional brain feelings have come from. In this therapeutic context, we can start to find ways to cope with the overwhelming feelings attached to that past that is limiting our capacity to adapt and cope with daily challenges. As a therapist, I use different approaches that engage the rational brain and bring light to a person’s self-management and empowerment. I sort of see myself as a life coach who is focused, as much as possible, on the client in front of me, encouraging him or her to become a better version of themselves and take control of their destiny. This, of course, means some mindfulness practice that has us being compassionate with ourselves and others as we journey through self-awareness and healing. 

I used to believe that helping a client make sense out of what is going on for them would, for sure, bring better congruent subsequent action. Unfortunately, this is not true for everyone all the time. Months after some insightful conversations with certain clients, I often found them coming back to see me with the same original distress and reactions. Even for me in my own journey, the insights attained in a therapy session did not always transfer as change in my daily life environment. This phenomenon only made sense to me when I read Bessel van der Kolk’s, The Body Keeps the Score. “Understanding why you feel a certain way does not change how you feel.” In his book, he makes it quite clear that the rational brain cannot dissolve emotions, sensations or thoughts. He brings forward the idea that the rational brain is what we use to find ways to cope with feelings, however for this to happen, there must be a proper balance between rational and emotional brain function so we can feel in charge of our life responses.

When someone isn’t in charge of their life responses, we can usually expect a diagnosis of some kind either connected to some type of developmental delay or mental health issue. Learning disabilities, difficulty with concentration, impulse control, anxiety, meaningless in life, difficulties in relationships: these are all signs of brain imbalance. This does not mean that I’ve “lost my marbles.” It just means that there is an imbalance; the more there will be a difference of activity between the emotional brain and rational brain, the more acute the signs and symptoms. Actually when there is more emotional, there is usually less rational; we feel flooded so we can’t think. Before the advent of the pharmacological revolution, it was widely understood that the brain depends on both electrical signals and chemical signals. I agree with psychiatrist, Deborah R. Simkin’s statement: “Neuro(technologies) will be the one thing in psychiatry that’s going to change what we do.” When the electrical signals of the brain are balanced between the emotional and rational brains, chemical activity settles without the use of medication. 

Part of the work that goes on in a counselling session is that exploration of how we are finding a balance in all aspects of our life: be it physical, emotional, social, occupational, spiritual, intellectual, and environmental health – those seven dimensions of wellness you read about at Safe Harbour Therapy. It may mean addressing nutritional deficiencies or gut issues, engaging in some exercise and getting some fresh air, assuring restful sleep and practising mindfulness, getting connected and staying connected with others. With a little more insight on how we are managing the different parts of our life, we can make the necessary changes that will probably keep us from dis-ease or mental ill-ness. Sometimes all this insight does not bring satisfactory change fast enough.

Earlier, I brought up ‘losing my marbles’ as an imagery. As Winnipeggers, we know that all our houses built on Lake Agassiz gumbo makes for some “wonky” foundations. Marbles dropped on these floors end up in the corner somewhere. It is a sure indication that those floors need levelling. Home builders today are now obliged to add pylons to support the structure that they are building. The same goes for each one of us when we get a sense that we are “losing it.” What pylon (dimension) needs attending so that we can regain and maintain that much needed brain balance? 

According to Bessel van der Kolk, if we want to change our reactions, we have to access the emotional brain and maybe do “limbic system therapy.” The emotional brain is all about imagery and feeling, not much about language or thoughts. To access this emotional brain, we need some therapeutic techniques that are body-based not thought-based. When we do this, we are “repairing the faulty alarm systems and restoring the emotional brain to its ordinary job of being a quiet background presence that takes care of the housekeeping of the body, ensuring that you eat, sleep, connect with intimate partners, protect your children, and defend against danger.” Some body-based techniques that help the alarm system to relax include: mindful breathing, yoga, exercise, rocking from side to side or front to back, music, prayer, meditation… things we can do for ourselves, once aware of the benefits. 

Here at Safe Harbour Therapy, we offer more formal body-based therapeutic approaches. The first one that I’d like to mention is EMDR (Eye-Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing) which uses bilateral movement to engage both sides of the brain, promoting integration of the emotional side of the brain with the rational part of the brain. A second limbic system therapeutic approach is Sensorimotor Therapy which helps clients use their rational brain to notice sensory body responses and learn to calm the body. In both of these approaches, the goal is to help a client find a balance between the emotional and rational brains, so that the rational brain can then make sense of and manage what is going on emotionally. For some people, even these two approaches may not be possible because the emotional brain does not allow the rational brain to function to full capacity or actually, keeps it in rev-mode. I often see clients who believe that the best way to address their past, and the overwhelming feelings that come with it, is to deal with it with the rational brain through some talk therapy. Unfortunately, this can leave them wanting because that talk therapy, which necessarily includes someone else’s presence, may actually be activating the emotional part of the brain and limiting the rational brain’s capacity to process what is happening in the body and/or access coping strategies. 

When our brain is not functioning as we would like, an EEG activity reading of our brainwaves will usually show evidence of an imbalance between the rational and emotional brains. Just like a muscle in the body, the brain has the ability to repair itself, to reset itself because of neuroplasticity. Neuro-therapy helps the brain find that much needed rational-emotional balance that puts you back in charge of you. Like a muscle that needs physiotherapy after an injury, the brain can also benefit from some very specific training so it can relax into its balanced function. This is why I find myself offering another option here at Safe Harbour. I offer the benefits of a neurotechnology that uses brain-initiated sounds to relax the brain without the conscious effort of the rational brain trying to make sense of the emotional brain’s reactivity. With the brain being the control center of everything we think, feel and do, this body-brain-based approach offers a unique and non-invasive strategy to level the playing field (floor) between the emotional and rational brains. And, there is no need for self-disclosure or interpretation. It’s all about relaxation. 

I read in psychotherapist-professor Irvin Yalom’s work that, as therapists, we take for granted that insight leads to change. Yet, for so many clients, it is the reverse: insight follows change. When our body experiences something different, we are actually in a learning process that allows growth in executive functioning which is so needed for self-confidence, playfulness and creativity to flourish. When body-based therapies allow the emotional brain to be “heard,” the rational brain can step in with coping strategies that get us through whatever emotional-rational ‘developmental delay’ the emotional brain may have caused. When body-brain-based therapies allow the emotional and rational brains to dance together, we report enhanced memory and focus, decreased impulsivity and anxiety, better mental clarity, more restful sleep, improved mood, and enhanced performance. And that, out of our own creativity, not from a therapist’s perspective. This is not to say that, as changes come, a therapist’s support is not necessary. 

As a therapist offering a neurotechnology to my clients, I find myself in a life-coaching role because with the change in a person’s brain function comes insight and opportunity for clients to use their thinking and their energy in a new way, using a different system of thought, different language, and having fresh visions of the future.” I find myself supporting an increase in the positive life skills of the client rather than focusing on negative patterns and strategizing in order to address the past or symptoms observed. Like the innovator of this neurotechnology, Lee Gerdes, I find myself celebrating the infinite possibilities of that person’s balanced brain. 

I’d like to end with another quote: “We are really who we are when our brain works right. When our brain works right, we are more thoughtful, more goal-oriented, and more interested in other people. We are kinder, our moods are more stable, and we are more tolerant. When our brains work right, anxiety doesn’t rule us, although we have enough anxiety to get out of bed in the morning and go to work. When our brains work right, even though we may have negative thoughts from time to time, they do not rule our internal life. When our brains work right, even though we may have graphic, violent thoughts, they are not common and we do not act them out. When our brain works right and our spouse makes a mistake, we do not hold onto that mistake for twenty or thirty years. When our brains work right, we feel sexual, but we are not ruled by our sexual desires. When our brains work right, our children may still drive us crazy, but we act toward them in a positive, helpful way the vast majority of the time. When our brain works right, we are more able to be who we really want to be.” (Dr. Daniel AMEN) 

Amen, Daniel; Change your Brain Change your Life – The Breakthrough Program for Conquering Anxiety, Depression, Obsessiveness, Lack of Focus, Anger, and Memory Problems(Harmony; 2015; p. 413) Gerdes, Lee; Limitless You – The Infinite Possibilities of a Balanced Brain (Namaste Publishing; 2011) Simkin, Deborah R., M.D.; Popper, Charles W.; Alternative and Complementary Therapies for Children with Psychiatric Disorders – An Issue of Child and Adolescent Psychiatric Clinics of North America (Elsevier Canada; 2013) (see Functional (Integrative) Medicine and Functional Psychiatry website info https://www.integrativepsychiatryofdestin.com/about) van der Kolk, Bessel; The Body Keeps the Score – Brain, mind and body in the healing of trauma (Penguin Books; 2015; p. 205) Yalom, Irvin D.; The Gift of Therapy – An Open Letter to a New Generation of Therapist and Their Patients (Harper Collins Publishers; 2002; p. 176)

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