It is Monday morning and, having watered the greenery in my office, I sit down, ready for the first therapy session this week. What my online clients can’t see is the view out of the window in front of me – the huge London sycamore framed by the uninterrupted square pane of glass.
John* joins our Zoom session in a state of restive anxiety caused by the interactions with his teenage son Calvin. Calvin is having a difficult time coming to terms with the end of a relationship and manages his own anxiety through a number of behavioral addictions and the recreational use of cannabis.
I listen as John tells me that he cares deeply for his son and it upsets him when he is unable to reach him and make things better for him. Things are different now that Calvin is 18 – they no longer talk as they used to. John tries to start conversations and asks question, but the responses are monosyllabic or superficial. “It’s as if my son has shut the door on me and I miss him.” Sometimes John tries harder and Calvin pulls away. I nod in acknowledgement: the silence feels like rejection to John and sometimes the hurt is overwhelming. When this happens, he withdraws and shuts down too – a self-protective part of him urges him to forget about Calvin, to cut off from the futile attempts to help him.
John and I have been working together for a while now and know that, when John feels upset, he oscillates between trying hard and not caring – his limbic system’s versions of fight and flight. The limbic parts of our brains are wired for survival. They detect danger in an unsophisticated unquestioning way. (Think about irrational phobias…) When it comes to survival, there isn’t time to stop and reflect – the brain’s signaling systems initiate the flood of adrenalin and influx of blood into our extremities to enable us to fight or flee there and then.
Neither of these responses is helpful for John. They are neither relevant, nor reparative for his relationship with Calvin.
It doesn’t matter that this is not a life-threatening situation – sometimes rejection can feel like one.
Back in the session, we think about the two obvious routes available to us. The first one is to give John an opportunity to vent about Calvin in the hope that the stifled upset can be talked out and away. The second one is to calm his reactive limbic brain and thus enable him to reflect more insightfully on his relationship with his son.
Both have their advantages and sometimes venting is necessary and fine, but John and I have been here before and know that the sense of relief that follows wears off eventually and venting becomes a habit, not a solution.
Instead, I ask John to sit back and place his feet on the floor, to roll his shoulders up, back and down and focus on his natural breath. I ask him to place his hands on different points on his head and upper body that, combined with a focus on the breath, bring about calming and relaxation. We do this for 15-20 minutes and gradually I can see how John’s facial muscles relax, his breath deepens and his facial expression becomes peaceful and self-assured. The restless anxious look has disappeared and the remaining 30 minutes of the session have a slow settled quality to them. John is now present in the session with me.
John tells me he feels like himself again. He is able to think more clearly and comments on the futility of trying to make things happen for Calvin and the pain of convincing himself that he doesn’t care. As John starts his search for the middle ground in his relationship with his son, he grasps instinctively that the middle ground lies in this peaceful and self-assured sense of himself and that being present and available to his son might be a better alternative to trying too hard or not at all.
We both notice how, once the anxious part of him has had a chance to calm down, a more balanced and somewhat obvious and uncomplicated solution emerges as if by itself.
It reminds me of the rich work my clients and I do around emotional self-regulation and that it might be a good idea to expand on this topic in another blog piece.
*This story is a composite of a number of sessions with real clients. Identities have been altered to protect confidentiality.