John*, my first client for the day joins our online Zoom session in a state of restless anxiety about 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 behavioural addictions and recreational use of cannabis.
John cares deeply for his son deeply and it upsets him when he is unable to get through to him and more importantly to make things better for him. Things are different now that Calvin is 18 – they no longer talk the way 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.” John tries harder sometimes which leads to Calvin pulling away. The silence feels like rejection to my client and sometimes he feels overwhelmed by the hurt. When this happens, John withdraws and shuts down too – a self-protective part of him steps in and urges him to forget about Calvin, to cut off from the futile attempts to help him.
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 phobias for example.) When it comes to survival, there isn’t time to stop and reflect – the brain’s signalling systems initiate the flood of adrenalin and influx of blood into our extremities to enable us to fight or flee there and then (or freeze, or fawn, but this is for another time).
It doesn’t matter that this is not a life threatening situation – sometimes rejection can feel like one.
Neither of these responses is helpful for John. It is neither relevant nor reparative for his relationship with Calvin.
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 pent up 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 venting wears off eventually and venting becomes a habit, not a solution.
We opt for the latter: 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 breath without forcing it. 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 facial expression becomes somehow peaceful and self-assured. The restless anxious look disappears and the remaining 30minutes of the session have a slow settled quality to them.
John tells me he feels like himself again. He is able to think more clearly and starts his search for the middle ground in his relationship with Calvin. John seems to grasp 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 cutting him off.
We have come to the end of the session.
*This story is an aggregate of a number of session with real clients. Names and circumstances have been altered to protect client confidentiality.