I have been going to counselling for the past three months after struggling to cope with the death of my Dad. My GP recommended a local grief counselling service in Hackney and I have found the process more helpful than I could have imagined.
Anxiety is widespread at the moment and death, tragically, is more present in daily life than I’ve ever witnessed in my lifetime. I wanted to share some of the things that resonated with me during my grief counselling. Some of the things that I’ll be touching on I feel might be helpful to others in a similar position, but also transferrable to mental health struggles beyond grief too.
I’d like to start with one of my earlier sessions with Lauren, my counsellor, that made a big impact on me (for the sake of this blog I’ve changed my counsellor’s name to Lauren). The first thing I noticed about her was her glasses, as they were very big, and they encompassed two intense brown eyes that rarely broke focus. Lauren’s technique for each session is to sit silently and patiently until her client is ready to speak. This lets them set the pace, though it was a little unsettling at first I must admit.
Slowing down your thoughts let’s you access your feelings
I had never realised how much sway overthinking can have on your mental health, especially in grief or trauma. I’d always considered myself emotionally in tune and overthinking as a trait was reserved for the people that thought logically, the statisticians, with brains that had to look at the minute details. Not like me who, on the surface, appeared to be an open book with my thoughts and feelings – going with the flow. I didn’t bottle things up I spoke about them. Didn’t I?
What does that mean, “going with the flow?”, Lauren asked me in one of our first sessions. I explained to her that I felt I was accepting of my circumstances. That logically, I understood life doesn’t pick and choose who to take. Death comes for us all, it was just Dad’s time.
“So you think you have accepted your Dad’s death and all the traumas that have come before him passing?”, she enquired. I paused to think. “Yes”, I said. “I have. I understand he has died and he is no longer here, I don’t have the numbness that came with shock anymore”. “So why are you so anxious? Where does that come from? What do you feel right now in your chest speaking about it, about your Dad?”
That is when everything unfolded.
Saying you accept trauma and truly accepting trauma are very different things. Our brains and our emotional body are not the same, but they are connected. I had told myself I had accepted my Dad’s death, but I hadn’t – not at all. Our brains are incredible tools for categorising and filing thoughts away, but they are awful for processing emotions. I like to think of it as a calculator trying to produce poetry; it’s not possible. Often, we have thoughts and responses in grief that on the surface sound right (e.g. I understand Dad has died as I attended his funeral), but they fail to address what we are really experiencing emotionally. Our brains will categorise emotions into tidy statements that can be boxed away and pushed into the attics of our minds, right near the back and safely out-of-sight. They stay there, ignored and unaddressed.
How do you feel?
When she asked me this, I instinctively said “Well, on the surface-”
“Josh”, she cut me off. “I don’t want to know the surface. I want to know how you feel. So let’s try again: how do you really feel?”. She probed, softly, so I didn’t feel pressured at all. “I know that factually and logically he is gone and it’s a part of life”. Again, factually and logically. My brain had taken my experience and logically tried to dismantle it. Because of X, I understand Y, so I should be feeling Z. But that is not how our bodies work – well, mine at least doesn’t.
The emotional pain that comes with grief can be too much to bear. Our brains, in an attempt to protect us, can feather around our feelings with logical thoughts in an attempt to avoid them, rather than taking them head on. They try to out manoeuvre our emotions by “making sense of situations”. Now, it is important for us to do this, normally, but sometimes, for us to really understand what we are experiencing, what we are really feeling, we need to switch off the voice in our heads and listen to our emotional bodies. That’s where emotions live and they can be far more nuanced. With our emotions often X does not equal Y.
Taking time to listen
I stopped speaking in an attempt to quieten my mind. How do I feel? Shit, actually, I thought to myself. My heart is beating out of my throat and anxiety seems to be leaking and bleeding into my chest area. I wasn’t okay, even if I was telling myself I knew my Dad had died and that I had come to terms with it.
“What do I do now?”, I asked, fearing the usual spiel around mindfulness and meditation. I believe in them as tools, I really do, but personally I had yet to find a way of making them stick. “Check in”, she replied, “and do so regularly. Try to spot unhealthy patterns of over-thinking”.
It has only been a couple of months but I try to check in as often as I can. I’m trying to quieten my mind when I feel anxiety or sadness brewing, staying vigilant to that voice in my head that has the tendency to over-think, to spiral and categorise and desperately try to make sense of things that aren’t logical. Grief brings a whirlwind of emotions, thoughts and feelings. Why is life so unfair? Why me? Why us? Why is it always my family? These aren’t simple thoughts with simple answers. There’s a lot of anguish, anger and frustration in them and as much I want to breeze through the process, I need to be patient. Grief takes as long as it needs to and it’ll take you with it whether you like it or not. The more you try to fight it the harder it bites. Before I can start to accept the death of my Dad I need to find the time and space to just be with the pain.
“Breathe into the pain. Listen to it, don’t try to figure it out”, Lauren said. “When you listen, you give yourself time and space to feel. That’s where the healing can start, because you’re not bottling it up or ignoring it”. She continued to explain the importance of finding ways of preventing spirals. Whether it’s a nice bath, a nap, or an evening with friends – you need to find the things that keep you from overthinking.
That session alone taught me so much about myself. I’m not the person I thought I was. I lean far more heavily onto my logical and analytical side than I thought. That side acts as my crutch, my way of dodging uncomfortable emotions; but it’s not always healthy. I’m just starting my journey (a cliche I know), but my toolbox is there with the other tools I’ve discovered in counselling, and I will touch on these in later blogs.
Obviously this is just my experience. Grief and trauma is so personal and everyone’s experiences can be entirely different. But I felt the topic of “overthinking” was a common experience, shared by a lot of us, and a healthy place to start the conversation. Maybe it resonated with you, maybe not. Perhaps my experience might encourage you to give counselling or therapy a go. Either way, I hope you found the blog insightful and if you would like to know more feel free to pop me a message.