Stan bounded into the reception area two minutes late to his next session. “I’m so sorry,” he said breathlessly. “The presentation I was doing ran over.”
“No problem. Did you want to give Charcoal a treat? He’s on his way to greet you,” she nodded her head in the direction of the hallway.
“I do,” Stan said grinning. He went over and picked up a treat as a little black streak came to a sudden halt right in front of him and dropped to a perfectly composed sit. Stan laughed and bent over.
“If you stop about 8 inches above his nose,” the counsellor told him, “and say, ‘Okay’ he’ll do his one trick for you.”
Stan followed her directions, and then said, “Okay,” and Charcoal rose straight up from the sit and delicately took the treat from Stan’s fingers then turned and trotted down the hallway, disappearing through a door.
As they walked to her office, the counsellor asked, “How was your week?”
“It was good actually,” Stan responded. “I still feel surprised. I’ve seen you three times and things are already so much better. As they settled into the therapy room, Stan continued. “I watched those videos on mindfulness and had to laugh at myself and what I thought mindfulness was. I appreciate that you didn’t laugh at my ignorance.” He looked rueful.
“No fear of that,” she smiled. “What did you learn?”
“I learned that I truly don’t live in the present,” he paused. “I am living a life driven by anxiety and I didn’t know it. I started practicing after I watched the first video, which I didn’t like very much,” he added as an afterthought. “I tried a couple of the others and found one I could listen to without cringing, and I’ve been doing it every morning. I’ve been using the CalmApp© at night like you suggested, and I feel completely different. I’m getting enough sleep, I wake up in the mornings feeling ready for the day, and with the strategies I practiced for managing my anxiety in the moment, I feel like I’m doing so, so much better.”
“Which of the mindfulness exercises did you find most helpful?”
“The one where I focus on something I can hear, something I can smell, and something I can feel, and finally, doing a full body scan, from feet to head. It’s taught me to be aware of what’s happening now.” He emphasized the final word with a chop of his hand.
“You’ve put a lot of effort into practicing these strategies,” the counsellor observed.
“I have,” Stan agreed, “but I’m pretty sure that’s not the end of therapy.”
“No, not quite yet,” she agreed. “There’s more we can do together to work at resetting your nervous system so that it takes more to trigger the fight, flight, or freeze response.”
“What does that look like,” Stan asked curiously. “It seems like what I’m already practicing is making such a huge difference that I would have thought that just doing more of it would be sufficient.”
“If you were just going for self-management, then you could continue to practice mindfulness and remain present by habit. If you’d like to be able to catch the trigger before it happens, you have a little more work to do,” his therapist suggested.
Sam sat without speaking, looking at the floor. Finally, he looked up at the therapist. “I have been completely wrong about counselling,” he said regretfully. “I could have gotten help for this years ago when I was feeling so anxious about my university exams that I always threw up. One of my classmates who ended up going to counselling for something,” Stan paused. “I don’t even know what for, but it got out somehow that he was in therapy and we ragged on him unmercifully.” He looked uncomfortable. “I was an idiot.”
“More likely, unknowing,” the therapist said quietly. “It doesn’t make it any less hurtful for the student, but it was a function of the culture of the times. Things are different now, and that kind of behaviour wouldn’t be acceptable. And that’s a very good thing,” she added firmly.
“It is,” Stan agreed. “So, what do I need to do now?”
“I’m going to show you a principle that, if you practice it, will change everything about the way you deal with any situation.”
“Well. That’s a tall order,” Stan said with a smile. “Tell me about this magic trick.”
“Oh, it’s not magic, she contradicted. “It’s practice on your part and then with consistent application, it will make everything different.”
She stood up and wrote E S F B on the blackboard. Stan moved over to the other end of the sofa so he could see what she was doing without getting a sore neck. The therapist then added ‘Event, Story, Feelings, and Behaviour’ as a vertical list. She turned to Stan. “I usually explain this using hockey. If the Vancouver Canucks and the Calgary Flames are playing, when a goal is scored, what actually happens?” She waited expectantly.
“Some people cheer and others boo,” Stan replied with a shrug.
“That’s the result of what happened,” his counsellor corrected gently. “The actual event that occurred is a small black disk slid over a blue line.”
“That’s true,” he agreed. “Depending on who scored, people will cheer or boo,” he added triumphantly with a grin.
“That is true,” the counsellor laughed at Stan’s smug expression. “But why is it that some fans cheer and some fans boo?” she asked curiously.
“Because depending on who scored, half the arena thinks their team will win, and half the arena thinks their team will lose,” he explained.
“That’s also true,” she agreed, “but there was one event; a small black disk slid over a blue line, but two completely opposite responses are observable. That means it can’t be the event that is causing the reactions,” she pointed out. “It must be a consequence of the story each person tells themselves about that event. The feelings we experience are never caused by the event itself but by what we tell ourselves about that event. The feelings follow the story and the behaviour follows the feelings.”
Stan looked stunned and sat motionless staring at the counsellor’s writing on the board. “Event, Story, Feelings, Behaviour,” he read slowly. “Holy shit! When I have a presentation, I have this running dialogue in my head about all the things that could go wrong, I see myself messing up my slides, forgetting my data, or accidentally spitting on my boss who always sits in front of me.” Stan paused, obviously thinking. “My mom had a story about everything. She told it to herself out loud often enough that I could probably repeat it word for word. It was always predictions of damage and disaster. I don’t think I know how to tell myself a story that isn’t negative. I think I even do that when good things happen because I always feel like something bad will happen. The good never lasts so I need to be prepared for the disappointment.”
“That’s all part of your story, Stan,” the therapist said compassionately. “When our story includes predictions of a lack of resources, or an inability to cope, or the expectation of a bad or unwanted outcome, the feelings that accompany that story will be negative, and the behaviour that follows with be either safety-seeking which is a form of self-protection, or contingency planning, which is what is sounds like your mother did. Trying to cover all the possible negative outcomes so that she was ready for anything. Which is exhausting and anxiety-inducing in everyone around her because you’re required to share in her hypervigilance as a safety strategy. Make sense?”
“Totally!” Stan exclaimed. “I’m struggling to stay focused on what you’re saying because I have all these ‘Aha!’ things happening in my head. F**k!” he swore emphatically. “I don’t remember ever telling myself a good story about any event. Or if it did start out positive, it always ends up with looking for the ‘something bad’ that’s sure to happen.” He looked up. “Sorry for the swear. I’m just thinking about how I approach anything that happens. Even good stuff. This is just so messed up. I feel like my brain just exploded.”
The counsellor sat down, put her chalk on the shelf, and said, “You’re already working on changing it, Stan. You’ve been practicing the strategies that calm your nervous system, and now, we’ll add something more you can do. All this week between sessions, I want you to tune in to the story you’re telling yourself. Take that new habit of mindfulness and check in with yourself regularly. Use your emotional response to whatever is happening to cue you to ask yourself, ‘What am I telling myself about this event?’ and try to identify your internal story themes. If you need to make a quick note on your phone to remind you of the incident and your reflection, do that, and we’ll look at your narrative in the next session. Do you think you can do that based on today’s session?” she asked.
“I can,” Stan said confidently. “I’m actually looking forward to trying this. It just makes so much sense.” He paused. “Would thinking like this mean that the fight/flight/freeze thing is always front and centre? Like, ready for anything, all the time?”
“Yes,” the counsellor responded. “It’s a form of hypervigilance that lives in the nervous system and is triggered by what you think, as opposed to real danger. What we’re going to do is help calm that system down.”
“I’m on it,” Stan said firmly. “I’m looking forward to this.”
“Did you record this session, Stan?” his therapist asked.
“Yes, I did. Why?”
“Try to listen to it again about halfway through the week. It helps to refresh your understanding of what you’re trying to do in identifying the stories you tell yourself.”
“Okay. I’ll do that. I usually do listen to the session again before the next one, but sometimes I wait until the night before. I’ll do it earlier this week.”
“Perfect,” she said with smile. “See you next week.”
As he made his way to the exit, Stan laughed out loud to see Charcoal sitting in reception. He made eye contact with Stan, and just as before, slowly turned his head to point his nose at the treat jar. “Here you go,” Stan said as he offered the treat to the dog who took it delicately. “See you next week.” He smiled as the dog trotted away.
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