One of Insight Wellbeing at Work’s counsellors shares Jennifer’s* journey through the short-term counselling process and describes how she learned to cope with her family difficulties and challenge negative thoughts.
When Jennifer initially rang the 24 confidential counselling helpline, she had just returned to work having been previously signed off for six weeks with depression and anxiety following some family difficulties. Jennifer had become more and more withdrawn and low in mood and finally broke down at work.
A brief assessment was carried out by an experienced counsellor on the helpline, and it was agreed that six sessions of telephone counselling would help Jennifer process what had gone on for her during this difficult period, and support her to put strategies in place around her own self-care. It would also help her to untangle herself from the consuming anxious thoughts she was still experiencing around her family difficulties.
When Jennifer had her first session, she found it beneficial to be able to talk through some of the dark thoughts she had been experiencing during the previous few weeks and to reflect with the counsellor what had been happening for her. She had felt ashamed of some of her thoughts and feelings, and too embarrassed to talk to family and friends, meaning she withdrew herself from social situations, leaving her feeling isolated.
Jennifer found that having the sessions over the ‘phone gave her an autonomy that allowed her to be more open than she initially thought she would have been. Having this safe space to reflect on the impact of keeping these thoughts and feelings to herself then enabled Jennifer to speak to family members about how she had been feeling, which felt a great relief.
As the sessions went on, it became clear that Jennifer’s anxiety left her thinking fairly extreme negative thoughts, such as she was going to become estranged from a family member following a disagreement, which naturally lowered her mood. Jennifer began to see that some of these thoughts were distorted, and with the support of her counsellor she was able to both challenge them and introduce alternative, more helpful and realistic thoughts. This process helped her notice when negative automatic thoughts popped in to her mind, so that she could step back from them and challenge them, which gave the situation a different and more positive feel. Letting go of some of the ‘worst case scenario’ thinking meant that she became much less consumed by the situation.
The sessions also helped Jennifer recognise that she was taking on full responsibility for putting the family situation right, leaving her feeling that it was up to her to resolve it. It was hard for her to stop thinking about it, which affected her general functioning. The sessions helped her realise that she was not responsible for other people’s actions and responses, and that actually stepping back at times can help to diffuse the situation.
In the final couple of sessions, Jennifer and her counsellor focussed on Jennifer’s self-care going forward. They ensured she was aware of the warning signs (such not sleeping and beginning to feel down and emotional) and of the steps she could take to avoid getting as low as she did previously – including talking to her husband about how she was feeling. Jennifer’s counsellor had sent her a form to record her thoughts if she could feel her them getting increasingly negative, so that she could look at alternative ways of thinking, which had worked so well during the sessions.
They also looked at what Jennifer could do in the winter months as she was aware her mood had a tendency to lower as the nights drew in, and strategies included buying a natural daylight lamp, and planning different social activities around that time, so she had lots to look forward to.
Overall, Jennifer found her counsellor’s non- judgemental and understanding approach gave her the permission she needed to open up about her feelings, whilst at the same time enabling her to bed in some effective strategies to improve the way she was thinking and communicating with other family members – in particular learning techniques to stop her mind wandering off down a negative and destructive path.
*this client’s name has been changed to protect anonymity
Learning to recognise your personal warning signs can be helpful in maintaining your mental health. The signs could be:
Physical (headaches), behavioural (avoiding social situations), emotional (becoming tearful), thoughts and feelings (worst-case scenario / catastrophic thinking).