Editor’s note: This is the ninth in a series of monthly mental health guest posts. This month we have an expert opinion from the wonderful Anna Colgan, a Core Process Psychotherapist & Somatic Experiencing (SE) Practitioner. Anna was trained at the famous Karuna Institute and works in the South West, using an approach based on Buddhist and Western influences. To find out more about her approach, visit www.annacolgan.co.uk.
So what is mental illness? As a psychotherapist it is not a term I use. People do sometimes get into very serious delusional states but mostly our mental suffering is depression, anxiety or emotional pain. Delusional states almost certainly have the same origin as other emotional suffering, which is that the human being, maybe when they were a small child or baby, has become overwhelmed. We all have the innate ability to cope with adversity, but that capacity can become crushed.
One of the ways we work in Core Process Psychotherapy is that we re-awaken the client’s capacity for coping: we may have been bereaved but we can still see that it is a sunny day outside. The therapist may ask, ‘When you focus on the sunshine and how it makes that leaf look so green what happens in your body? ‘ The client may take an involuntary deep breath and this can be the start of some healing.
Early trauma, when we were a baby in the womb or a small infant, makes a more indelible mark than most other types of trauma, because at such a vulnerable age we had fewer coping strategies and our ‘being needs’ for warmth and acceptance were so very great at that time.
The healing of this early trauma is not necessarily different from later trauma. In all cases the body carries traces of the trauma, or the suffering or whatever name we wish to give it, and by slowing down and taking notice we can find out what is actually going on. The trauma can ‘come into the room’ to be healed.
I am reminded of a client who had sometimes told her friends that deep down she felt like she had ruined her life (by having a baby before she got a career underway) and understandably her friends said she hadn’t, and they tried to cheer her up saying she had two beautiful children. But when we slowed down in therapy her feelings really wanted to be heard and needed to be taken seriously. By paying attention to the cry of pain, that she felt like she had ruined her life, she was able to cry and to grieve for the bit of her that really felt that way. Recovery was a natural process once she had grieved. She did not need me to tell her the children were lovely, she knew that and over the remaining time of the therapy often referred to her more complete love for her kids and her joy in them. We had contacted the client’s own inherent wisdom.
Therapy is often about allowing the client to grieve for a suffering that may not even have a name. We may have had a sense as babies that there was not enough love for us to thrive: not enough affection and closeness. In the present we may just contact a sense of abandonment in the client without knowing where it comes from, and we may not need to know. We can pay attention to that feeling of abandonment and validate it.
A client may want to defend parents and say how good they were, and this is also part of the therapy: we can enjoy the stories and examples of good parenting. And then we can say that it is OK to also acknowledge the part of you that felt abandoned. Again, for this acknowledgement to result in lasting relief for the client, it is good to pay attention to how it is registering physically. It is important to stress that this whole process may take a long or a short time. There may be layers to unpack and the client needs to get to know the therapist and to trust them.
Often we don’t feel entitled to feel what we actually feel: we may have a history of believing that our emotions have to be acceptable to others. A client may have his mother’s voice in his head saying ‘It’s no use getting upset!’ It may take months to realise that this was being said because the mother was not actually good at comforting small children.
But if we stay with something that we feel and notice the body, the sadness may come and we may be able to really know that our experience was far from ideal, and then there may be grief. For some this may be tears and for some it may not be: it may be a flush of warmth, or it may be a feeling of trembling or tingling.
Healing ‘mental illness’ takes many different shapes.