Total Pageviews

Monday, 14 May 2018

Writing for Therapy

It's 2018's UK Mental Health Awareness Week this week and I've been asked to contribute a poem to Ink Sweat and Tears Online magazine (see below for a link) who are doing a feature to mark the week.  Being invited was a perfectly timed spur for me, because I have a long list of topics for this blog
and writing for therapy is one of them. I've not written a blog article for too long having been overly occupied, and even bogged down, with other matters.  I needed an excuse to re-engage with writing!

Personal Writing

Poetry is one of 3 important Ps for me
the others being photography and philosophy.  I've turned to the thoughts of great thinkers many times and found them comforting and illuminating, and I've also found wandering around in beautiful and peaceful places with a camera around my neck to be balm for the spirit.  Poetry is similar to photography in some ways you need the right theme for the moment (although sometimes one presents itself by chance and good fortune), a flash of light, patience and hard work poems nearly always need working on and a good choice of frame (verse structure for instance) so do good photographs camera angles, lens selection, settings and processing, for instance. 

I did not start writing poetry as a means of therapy or to get over something.  I started writing it because I liked poetry, felt greatly engaged by it and wanted to have a go myself.  I can't say that most of the writing I do is for the purpose of being therapeutic, but I can say that quite a lot of it has ended up being that anyway and I've also turned to poetry at some points in my life to express what I was finding very hard to express in any other way.  I'd argue, in addition, that doing anything you like and which brings you a kind of inner peace is therapeutic
after all "therapeutic" means a treatment that heals from disease or hardship...and, most of the time,  life is nothing if not difficult.

The one thing I most want to say here is that therapeutic poetry should not be solely about dealing with pain and sadness.  Just as no good photographer takes pictures solely under stormy or blue skies, but rather tries to portray and reveal what's there as best as they can, so I believe poets should do something similar and I believe that exploring both light and dark are good forms of therapy.  A good photograph can be uplifting and joyous and take us to a good (and perhaps) better place, and poetry should do that, and indeed does do that, too.  When I write whilst feeling good about something it feels to me as good a form of therapy as dancing is.

Finding release in expressing strong feelings of any type fits in holistically with my own take on both philosophy and therapy
what is the point of just concentrating on what's hard if we can't also begin to move onto what's good? 

I certainly don't want to diminish the power of writing about suffering, but it's well covered that plenty of work on dark things goes on in writing and therapy and we all can all quote many examples of that, and writing about the process is common. I wanted to add a different angle, and therapy, photography and poetry are normally looking for new angles aren't they.  Nevertheless, it was my father's death that prompted the biggest burst of therapeutic writing for me.  I wrote many poems in the two or three years after his death and also a few during the time he had terminal cancer.  It was the most powerful method I had of coming to terms with things but many of the poems were celebratory as well as sad.  I've picked out a poem to include here that shows both sides.


On our route round Connemara
the wind sketched pools
in a wild-flower bog
then blotched
the undug peat with rain.

On the Ardnamurchan ferry
the swell took us
away from Tobermory
long enough
to watch seals in the bay.

On Islay, a rainbow
the sky opening
its kiosk
with important news

I’d got my first job.

How much I miss you.

Writing in Therapy

All the arts can be therapeutic and the links are strong.  Which of us, for instance, has not found comfort in a song or piece of music at some point?  We are drawn to music at weddings and funerals to mark and express important things.  Art galleries are also places where we can find solace or peace.  Sometimes an event or situation in a client's life will remind one of the two of us of a poem.  It's not unusual for poems to be quoted in my therapy room and people generally find that helpful.  It's also been shown by academic studies that writing events and feelings down in a journal can result in greater healing and one study even showed that writing therapeutically can improve your immune system. 

I'm a humanistic therapist so I don't insist on any activity for my clients – there are clients who don't want to write anything down and that's fine, but there do seem to be many more who find the idea of writing things down very helpful
and some also like to draw or paint.  I have often suggested to ones who are struggling that they might consider writing down their thoughts and feelings – perhaps as a journal, a poem, a mind-map, a letter to themselves or their younger or older selves, or perhaps a letter to another person who has had a profound influence on them (whether positive or negative).  Normally, this letter would not be sent – and in most cases it would be impossible or extremely unwise to send it anyway – but that is not the point.  Letters enable us to express things that we are holding onto, perhaps in a way that we can begin to move on from them.  I've had clients who wrote to fathers, mothers, sisters, brothers, lovers, friends, bosses etc.  Some of these were dead or were people that the client had no interest in speaking to again but nevertheless felt unfinished business with.

With a letter, as with a poem, a photograph or any form of art, it's often a good idea to have a few goals in mind before starting to write – it may be important to make 4 or 5 particular points and so it's a good thing to plan for that.  If it's a letter, I suggest keeping it shortish (maybe 2 or 3 sides at most) as this keeps things focussed.  It's often a good idea for the letter to have a balance – good things as well as difficult things, as this helps processing and coming to terms.  Of course sometimes there are no good things, or, in the case of a loss of someone who is greatly loved, there may be few or no bad things. It always seems more therapeutic and personal to write things down by hand rather than typing (I do the same thing with my first poetry drafts).

I always encourage clients (whether individuals or couples) to reach out for good things as well as to work through bad ones.  Although it's almost certainly bad experiences that have brought them to therapy, I hope for them to be on their journey with a renewed desire to find peace, happiness, joy and contentment.  Just as it's good in therapy to get in deep with really difficult matters, so it is good to encourage clients to rediscover or re-engage with things that have previously brought them peace – and if there is little of that, then to begin a journey to try to find it.   

It can help therapy to bring writing (and drawings or other types of art) to counselling sessions.  Sometimes clients find themselves too emotional to read their work out in sessions with me and that's fine.  I offer to read it for them.  Most often we will work through the contents of the writing, but for some people the act of writing and reading is enough.  Afterwards, some clients may want to keep the writing to hand so they can revisit it, and others may prefer to find some sort of therapeutic and ritual ending for it – just as a funeral says goodbye to a body, scattering the ashes of a piece of writing that you have burned can be a good way of finding some closure.

To conclude, I have found writing to be healing and helpful in my own life and I've seen how it can also help clients with things they are finding tough.  I've also seen how it can be a way of finding and exploring brighter places as well as darker ones.

David is a fully qualified and BACP Accredited and registered Person Centred Counsellor.  You can book a session with him by ringing 07578 100256 or emailing him at

The poem mentioned is called There is Nothing to Me but Sea and was written at a time when I felt too far away from the sea.  There was a kind of longing but I still wanted the poem to be upbeat and fun.  It's on Ink Sweat and Tears and appeared on 18/5/18:

Thursday, 23 March 2017

What is Stress and How Can You Deal With It?

About Stress

Stress is not the same as pressure or challenge – it's when our mechanisms to cope with a situation are exceeded.  It's perfectly possible to have pressure or challenge and do well out of it.  If you've got an achievable deadline, your adrenaline will flow and you may be energised to do better as a result.  However, expressions such as “a healthy degree of stress is good” should be challenged, and I feel they are actually a sloppy use of language where it would be better to use a different form of words.  To illustrate this: we wouldn't say that a bridge under stress is a good thing, because this would suggest that it had been put under the pressure of more traffic than it was designed to handle, which would be a dangerous thing, possibly leading to disaster.  To continue this analogy, we can think of lorries on the bridge as heavy stressors (bullying, relationship issues, bereavement, excessive workload over a long period) and cars as smaller ones (traffic jams, someone being rude or snappy with us, rain on a day when you relied on sunshine).  The bridge can only manage to hold so much weight before it starts to wobble and then collapse.  So it is with people.  Stress is an abnormal not a normal load – it is damaging for a bridge; for humans it's bad for the body, mind and soul.  Stress is not a sign of weakness, it's a sign that you have been strong for too long – in the example of the bridge, engineers should have spotted that the bridge was close to its capacity for strain and acted in a appropriate manner; in your life, either yourself or others could and should have changed something before it got this far.

Stress can build up over a period of time in a gradual way until we find we reach overload, or one or two really bad events in close succession can immediately take us into a feeling of overload.  

A mixture of personal and background stress can be very potent adding to personal stressors, we live in what might easily be described as the Age of Anxiety.  Modern life has many troubles, particularly perhaps for younger people who may come to see current issues stretching out indefinitely into the future.  It seems impossible to switch on our televisions without hearing about some huge uncertainty, disaster or problem. The last ten years seem to have had an increasing amount of troublesome issues: banking crashes, political upheaval and polarised opinion, famine, terrorism, global warming and extreme weather, species extinction, the uncertainties of Brexit etc.  Without a doubt, workplaces have become more difficult, with efficiency pressures in these financially limited times encouraging managers to adopt increasingly task-orientated methods rather than also considering (as past management styles seemed to do) the needs of the team and the individual. Apparently we live in the most held down wages for many decades, housing is ridiculously expensive, and many companies seem to want their staff to do more in less time whilst demanding their loyalty and giving very little of that back in return.  In an employer's market, the psychological welfare of staff is a low priority –company literature may state it as a priority but it is usually obvious that this is just window dressing to lull a false sense of security and to look impressive to outsiders or would be employees.  With all this, it's no wonder the world feels like a stressful place before we even add our own stuff into the mix. 

You may be thinking that there are people who are more stressed (or less stressed) than you.  This is almost certainly true, but it gets us nowhere. Differences in stress are not just about how different people are able to deal with the common things they are facing, but also about how one person's ability to deal with stress can differ wildly at different times because of other factors recent events, personal relationships, environment, health and energy levels. It's also true that many people also add to their own stressors by being overly perfectionist or by fearing failure or success, but that is rarely the only contributing factor.

Reactions to Stress
Some common reactions can be:
• Sweating
• Tight chest
• Increased pulse
• Physical tension
• Tummy troubles
• Sleep issues
• Headaches
• Irritability
• Anger
• Lack of libido
• Skin conditions
• Social withdrawal

These issues can affect different people with different intensities and there's also the phenomenon of being stressed about being stressed, so that the stress feeds on itself and spirals upwards.

What can we do about stress?

When you are stressed it's important to choose to do things.  You may well not feel like doing anything much at all, but you should do things anyway, because it's only by moving in a  different direction that you can change things for the better.  If there are things you enjoy doing but have stopped due to stress then you should probably try to do them again. There are many ways of coping with stress, and not all of them will be relevant or a good choice for everyone.  Nonetheless, some of the ideas below may help and some of them may be things you've done but given up on or found hard in stressful times:

Use exercise to relieve tension –but don't overdo it to start with
Learn your triggers and avoid them – for instance, if certain people or situations set you off, avoid them when it's reasonable to do so
Reframe the situation (if that is possible) – could there be  opportunity as well as difficulty ahead?
Concentrate on positive things more than negative ones
Consider the bigger picture – which might be wholly different from the close-focus one
Try to laugh – watching a favourite comedy can be great for relieving tension
Get more sleep  – if this is difficult try to take naps when possible
Have more physical intimacy, which is a great stress reliever (and sleep inducer)
Eat and drink more wisely – drink alcohol sparingly, avoid too much caffeine
Take time out
Treat yourself
Practice breathing slowly
Talk to someone you trust about what's troubling you
Ask for a long hug from someone who will be happy to oblige
Look at images of a favourite place or person
Listen to soothing music
Practise mindfulness – being in the moment no matter what you are doing
Find more time for a hobby or start one you've always wanted to
Work smarter not harder
Learn to say "no" when appropriate
Ask for help
Use a positive mantra to repeat in your head when entering a stressful situation
for instance, "I will be okay"
Do something repetitive – for instance, painting a fence can be very therapeutic if you are stressed
Accept those things that you can't change and try to change those that you can change
Do something artistic or creative to release a different type of energy – paint, write a poem, sing
Lower your expectations of yourself and others – you are probably expecting an unreasonable amount
Challenge any tendency you have to always think negatively.  Spot it and say to yourself, "there I go again, imagining disaster, when it will probably be difficult but fine."

Try to start becoming aware of when you get stressed. Notice your bodily reactions as you get stressed and allow them rather than struggle with them – try saying, for instance, "I am feeling stressed which is to be accepted in the circumstances.  I can manage this."  Be aware of how you are reacting can have a lot of power in defusing the stress as awareness always brings some measure of control.

Going to Counselling

Counselling  can be a good way to investigate and discover the causes of your stress.  By talking things through,  you can understand yourself better and start to deal with situations better as well.  A neutral, trained listener can help you unburden problems and facilitate change to something better – and you can look at options for coping with current and future situations and change and growth.

David is a fully qualified, BACP accredited and registered Person Centred and Existential Counsellor.  If you wish to talk about a bereavement, you can book a session with him by ringing 07578 100256 or emailing him at

Sunday, 24 July 2016


Of all the things that wisdom provides to help one live one's entire life in happiness, the greatest by far is the possession of friendship.

A friend is a person with whom I may be sincere.  Before him I may think aloud. 
Ralph Waldo Emerson

Friendship is one of the most important things in life but what is it, especially in this age of Facebook "friends?"  Have you stopped long to consider it and what it has meant in your life? 

People often talk about friendship in counselling and most of what follows is a reflection on that. Many useful pointers are revealed when people talk in therapy, and in addition, both lived experience and those of good writers reveal some grains of wisdom that are worth passing on.  It is important to note that there can be differences between how the genders approach and form friendships but I will leave the reader to ponder that one.

There can be very little more painful in this life than finding out that people whom you thought were your friends turn out not to be.  It's a  common experienceone that most of us go through several times in our lives and one that people often come to talk about in therapy.

At heart counselling is about the struggle to live an authentic life.  When other people are less than kind, it can be very problematic because you either have to defend, protect or withdraw - and you probably don't want to do any of those things.  If it's someone you've known for a long time and suddenly you find that they talk behind your back or mock you for something they either don't understand or can't accept, you may feel doubly betrayed there may be a nagging feeling that they have been dishonest with you all along.

Thoughts on Friendship

Here are a few things to look out for, each of which comes up on a reasonably regular basis in counselling sessions:

Accept that some friends are good for certain activities perhaps more than one if you're lucky but are not going to be bosom buddies regarding everything.  And this is fine and healthy and normal.  We should expect nothing more.

If you have a friend with whom you can "open up" freely and speak of deeper emotional things whilst feeling  trust, acceptance and support, then count yourself very lucky.  The truth is that most of us do not have many such friendsthe sort that you could ring at almost any time with a problem and they'd find time there and then or as urgently as they possibly could.

To balance things out, ask yourself if you are a friend like that to anyone else.  It's no good complaining you don't have friends like this if you yourself are not willing or able to be one.

Look out for how your friends talk about other friends or acquaintances in your group when they are not there.  Be sure that the person who continually gossips, mocks or talks behind people's backs is also talking behind yours too.  We all have to learn this the hard way but do learn it, and instead find someone who is more genuine and consistent. 

If you find yourself making far more effort to be friendly with someone than they are with yousending texts, calling in on them, trying to start conversations, inviting them around and they just stonewall you, the message is pretty clear and it's time to put them on the back-burner (at best).

If a friend is being unpleasant to you, always ask yourself "who's stuff is this?"  If they decide to turn on you for their own motives, it may feel like an attack and perhaps it is on one level.  But on another much deeper level, they are acting out their own issues and their own agenda.  Allow yourself a few hours or days of hurt and then realise that actually you haven't changed but they have.  Maybe something you do triggers their stuff, makes them feel their own insecurity (when you didn't intend that) or maybe they are jealous of something.  Put that into the psychological mix when you see them next.

Beware of the power of the large group.  It is hard to be yourself in such a group.  There are undercurrents, cliques, pre-held assumptions,  loyalties and existing biases.  Friends are rarely made in these situations and often distanced or even lost in them, too.

Similarly, if you have to try to fit in with a group and they exclude, mock or devalue you because you don't fully do so, work out a way of dealing with that or else stay out of the group dynamic.   Also ask yourself how the lead or most popular people in that group maintain the group's the energy positive or are there negative undercurrents that also feed it?  In therapy, I hear a lot about bullying, peer-pressure and passive-aggressive behaviours in some social groups.  At its worst this peer behaviour can involve risk taking, pressure for excessive alcohol consumption, or drug talking.  You should always ask how much of that you want to be exposed to and for how long.

Also beware of the narcissistic friend.  That's the one who turns every conversation around to themselves.  However great your need or recent achievement, this person would rather talk about themselves and will steer things around to that very quickly (perhaps in less than a minute).  On social media you will spot this with great frequency.  People often crow about themselves but more annoying still are the people who hijack other people's threads to trumpet their own success, instead of being supportive to the original poster.

Be aware of the opportunity and curse of social media in general...and its attendant shallowness.  How many Facebook friends are really friends?  How many would you like if you had to spend a day with them?  No doubt there are some you've never met that you would get on with very well, and others you wouldn't.  Facebook comes up in counselling quite a lot usually negatively!

Some friendships may be unhealthy these can cause feelings of anxiety, stress or even despair. There is also such a thing  as the "Toxic friend" who has a very negative, energy sapping, poisonous affect on our  inner world.  Hopefully these "friends" won't last long and if you spot them early enough, they will  be less problematic than some of the previous examples (which are more subtle).

Sometimes you need to put some effort or renewal into a good friendship and ask yourself some questions - such as: what do I want from this friendship, and am I getting it?  What do I give to them?  Does this friendship feel reliable and balanced?  Are there issues between us that we need to address if we  ignore these issues does that cause more problems than it saves?

Some friendships can survive disputes and the odd falling out and maybe bounce back better but only if they are strong.  At heart, this is about respecting the other person's differences from yourself and realising that you won't agree on everything and that some of their ways are different from yours. Some weaker friendships may not  take the strain of this.  

Don't expect your friend to be perfect.  They aren't.  Are you?  Remember that saints are thin on the ground.  Your friend will probably get on your nerves at some point, that doesn't make them a bad friend.  On the other hand, you should expect to be treated kindly by your friends (even if they are saying something you don't agree with).

Finally, remember this friendship is important and of great value.  To have a good friend is to have something worth more than gold.  The best friends are often those whose mere company is enough to please you.  It doesn't matter what you are doing or saying, just their presence is enough.