how to help yourself when you can’t do counselling

Counsellor, Celia Jarvis of Cappuccino Counselling,, holding her new born son.

I’m unabashedly biased about this -there is nothing quite like counselling. It turned my life around, making me less brittle and more able to tolerate difficult emotions without exploding. And now, as a counsellor myself, I see and hear of similar benefits experienced by my clients all the time. But sometimes, actually getting to counselling isn’t possible for many reasons. You may have just had a baby; be working overseas for a while; or simply can’t bring yourself to talk about what’s troubling you. If any of this resonates, then keep reading, because I have three suggestions on how to help yourself when you can’t do counselling.

1. Read guides written by counsellors or psychologists

In the last few years, many counsellors and psychologists have published their own self help guides -and most are very good. They allow us to gain insight into our feelings without ever having to set foot in a counselling room. And because we’re engaging with a book, rather than a person, we don’t have to make ourselves vulnerable. We can remain in complete control of the process.

These counselling guides typically include writing exercises, encouraging the reader to explore and gain insight into their own feelings. Usually followed up with some evidence based emotional soothing strategies. Allowing the reader to better manage their own hard feelings when they do occur.

I’ll list the books I recommend below, but before I do a word of warning:

If you decide to be your own therapist, with only the aid of a book, please practise good self care. Should you find yourself becoming overwhelmed or feeling traumatised, please stop immediately. One of the greatest benefits of seeing a counsellor, is that a trained healthcare professional is looking out for you. They will track signs of trauma, recognise if you’re struggling during counselling, and help you manage your therapy hangover. If it’s just you, alone with a book, then you’re responsible for pacing and protecting yourself.

If you do want to go it alone, here are the books I’d recommend:

How to do the Work by Dr Nicole LePera

Why has Nobody Told Me This Before? by Dr Julie Smith

How to be Your own Therapist by Owen O’Kane

2. Find a creative outlet

Part of the reason why we struggle to manage difficult feelings well, is because without an outlet for these emotions, they can become stuck in our body or endlessly circling round our head. Talking is obviously one method to release mental tension, but creativity is also another great way to help yourself.

One study in the British Medical Journal, published this year, found that woodwork, arts and crafts and gardening all helped reduce depressive symptoms throughout the pandemic. Whereas passive activities, like watching films and tv, increased depressive symptoms.

And research from the UCLA, exploring the benefits of free moving dance on mental health, found that over 98% of participants reported improved mood after a quick dance. They nearly all felt better after their free style, than they did before.

And please don’t limit your interpretation of creativity. My definition is: If it wasn’t there when you started, you took an action, and now something exists or did exist – then that’s creativity. However big or small. Whether it’s disco dancing in your living room or baking a cake in your kitchen, it all counts. And it’s all a great way to help yourself when you can’t do counselling

Woman dancing.

3. Find someone to talk to

Talking to someone is likely to make you feel better – however choose wisely. There are some caveats:

Select someone trusted, who is able to listen and unlikely to give advice. It’s not that their advice will be bad, but if it’s advice you wanted you could have googled it. At this stage you simply need someone who can hold space for you, while you talk. If they’re likely to judge, offer a solution or sidle in with their own similar problem, then keep looking for a better confidante.

Check they have the capacity to hear your problems before you start. You may be lucky to have a friend who’s a wonderful listener, non judgemental and completely trustworthy. However, if they’ve just divorced/ been made redundant/ not recovered from the flu -then they may be unable to make time for you.

If you’re unsure one simple way is just to ask, “I’d really like to talk to you about something, but I’m aware you’ve got a lot going on, do you think you could listen?” This gives them the option to say no, if they need to.

Consider calling a specialist organisation. It may well be you don’t have a friend who ticks all the boxes. If so, please don’t panic – this is normal and exactly the reason why counsellors exist. If this is true for you, then why not consider calling an organisation like Samaritans. Samaritans aren’t only for people who are suicidal. They exist to provide a listening ear to anyone who wants to talk about what’s on their mind. I speak with some knowledge as I used to be a Samaritan myself, before training as a counsellor.

Just talking about what you’re going through, to a trained empathic listener, can really make a massive difference to your mental wellbeing. And may even give you the confidence to take the next step and reach out to a counsellor.

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I love hearing from you, so if you have any comments – good or bad – then please let me know. And, If you have any ideas about how to help yourself when you can’t do counselling, just add them below.

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