Do you ever come out of a counselling session stoked with ideas, or sniffling with sadness, feeling you have a lot to think about but by the time you’ve driven home you can’t even remember what you talked about? Do you want to be able to hold onto some of that learning and make more effective headway in your therapy? Read on!
Counselling therapy has a lot in common with physiotherapy. If you have a physical injury or chronically sore joints, you go to a physiotherapist and they ask questions, manipulate your limbs and stretch muscles to try to get things moving in the right direction again. But if all you did to resolve the problem was go to physio once in a while, you probably wouldn’t heal or get stronger very quickly.
The real healing comes between appointments when you do the assigned exercises and put into practice their suggestions about changing your posture, increasing certain movements and decreasing others. You heal yourself with the work you do between appointments. Similarly, the processing you do between counselling sessions is crucial to shifting your mental and emotional health.
The physio often suggests a short walk after a session to let muscles get used to the realignment. Similarly, give yourself a little space immediately after your counselling appointment to collect yourself and settle your emotional state. Racing right back to work or into situations where you have to be on the ball emotionally for others could be difficult, so try to take time for a short walk or to journal in a coffee shop or on a park bench before going back into your normal hectic life.
If you can’t take time immediately after the session, try to find even 10 minutes within a day of your session to work through the following questions. Either jot down your thoughts in a journal or dictate a voice memo or email to yourself (you can do this with earbuds in while walking).
1. Was there an “aha” moment where you understood something about yourself in a new way or found a new perspective on an issue in your life? Summarize it.
2. What were the new tools you learned? Examples: techniques for managing anxiety or regulating emotion, frameworks for making decisions.
3. Was there a moment of intense emotion in the session (tears, anger, joy)? What brought on those feelings and do you understand them any differently now that you are outside of the session?
4. Were there things that confused you that you would like to explore further in yourself or talk with your therapist about the next session?
5. Were you given any specific homework to do? What was it and when do you think you might do it between now and the next time you see your therapist? (scheduling a time often helps you get it done).
6. Did you set goals for yourself in the session and if you were to achieve them, how would your life look/feel different?
As a therapist, I often ask if clients have any practices that they use to process new learning and reflect on their lives and I receive a wide range of answers, anything from meditation to motorcycle riding! Take a moment to answer the question for yourself— when do you do your best thinking and how have you reflected on changes, experiences and relationships of significance in your life?
I find that doing something active that engages my hands/body leaves space for my mind to process independently. Many common daily activities such as housework (cleaning, gardening, chopping vegetables, folding laundry) or rhythmic exercise (walking, jogging, swimming, kayaking, cycling) or artistic endeavours (playing scales on a musical instrument, working with clay, stitching, woodworking, painting, drawing) or just going for a drive provide the mental space for processing.
The key to making it reflective time and not just another physical activity is to set out with the intention of thinking about your counselling journey and to be mindful while you’re doing it, noticing the thoughts and feelings that float by, not judging them or pushing them out of your consciousness but considering them from a curious perspective.
After you’ve been active in body and reflective in mind it is helpful to record your learning. Writing in a journal can crystalize the ideas and put them in a form that you can revisit in the future. Journaling doesn’t have to involve writing, it could be dictating into your phone, sketching, songwriting, or creating a piece of art that symbolizes your internal journey.
As the week progresses after your counselling session, it’s good to keep the reflection going for at least 10-15 minutes a day through similar means. You can write/dictate about anything that is of significance to you, but if you need some help getting started consider these journaling prompts.
Eight Journal Prompts
1. Express your honest answer to “How are you feeling today?” by comparing yourself to the weather. Examples: I feel sunny… I feel the fog of confusion… there’s a storm brewing inside me…
2. Observe/consider a natural process in nature (tide coming in, seasons and weather changing, plants dying and decaying, new growth in spring etc) and explore it as a metaphor for something that is happening in your life or that you wish was happening.
3. Draw a tree that represents you and your life—the presence or absence of fruit, leaves, the state of the roots, trunk, branches, and the season and surroundings you are living in.
4. Choose a random object in your vicinity and write a comparison between it and a person you are close to. This could be funny, serious, sarcastic, or direct—let the object speak to you.
5. If you could call on the strength of a particular animal to help you in a current struggle, what is the animal and how would it help you?
6. What part of you is the strongest when you wake up in the morning (the part that wants to stay in bed, or the part that is excited or anxious about the day)? Is there another part of you that could help you face the morning more positively? When and how does that part usually show up for you at some point in the day?
7. Draw or describe a strong emotion you are feeling (anxiety, depression, anger, sadness, joy etc). How big, what colour, what shape and texture is this feeling currently? Represent it either in a metaphor or draw a picture of it. Now imagine it fading/shrinking/changing to a lighter colour that doesn’t dominate you so much and write or draw how it feels for it to be receding or changing.
Examples: “If it was true that I was loved then I would… (have more confidence, relax and be more vulnerable in relationship etc.)
If it was true that I was capable then I would…
If it was true that I could do what I’m afraid to try then I would…
If it was true that I am the person people say I am then I would…
Seven Benefits of Journaling:
1. Journaling helps you slow down to feel, explore and express your feelings, and work through the impact of experiences each day. It can be a mindfulness practice.
2. It provides a space to think about the big picture of your life and assess if your daily
decisions are in line with your long-term goals.
3. It can calm your mind when your brain won’t stop grinding on a problem.
4. It can be used as a tool to work through your anxiety and then leave it behind in the journal.
5. It can help you gain clarity on your options when making a decision and consider the fears, hopes and consequences of the options.
6. It provides a record of your journey that you can re-read to see themes that recur, encourage yourself that you have made progress or have worked through a similar problem in the past and can do it again, remind you of what “really” happened when you have gone a long way from the facts with your feelings.
7. It can be a place to jot down ideas and explore, create, and experiment with those ideas for projects, assignments, artwork and poetry.
Whether you write in a journal, dictate into a phone, ponder while cycling, or talk it through with your best friend, make the most of your counselling experience by taking time to reflect on your sessions, put your feelings into words or images and be actively involved in your healing journey between counselling sessions.
Joan Dosso M.T.S., MA, RCC brings a creative approach to therapy that helps her clients understand and integrate their emotional worlds. You can find out more about Joan here: meet Joan.