Out of the shell: A journey with Aly

This series tells fictional stories of the counselling journey. Drawn from our counsellors’ extensive experience, this story recounts how a young teenager builds her self-esteem and confidence as she explores her gender identity.

Aly’s parents contacted Relate after months of growing concern about their 14-year-old daughter. Over the last six months, she’d slowly retreated. Their chatty child had become more and more silent until she was barely talking to anyone. Where she previously would love being part of family activities, she now refused to leave her room. She wasn’t doing many of the things she used to love and had started struggling with school. Often, the thought of going to school would trigger a panic attack on Sunday evenings. Some days, her parents just could not get her out of bed – she was listless and low on energy. 

Aly’s parents tried many times to talk to her, but nothing worked. It was the GP who recommended Relate Northamptonshire to Aly’s mum as a first course of action. Thankfully, Aly agreed to come to counselling: an encouraging moment for Aly’s parents. It seems that Aly wanted something to change too. 

Initial meeting

At my initial meeting with Aly, I start by explaining to her what counselling is. This is an important conversation. Young people are often worried about how to start talking to me, and who I might talk to about what they say. 

I spoke to Aly about confidentiality. Nothing she shares in the counselling room will be told to her parents or anyone else – unless I am concerned about her safety, or someone else’s safety. 

I also explain to her what to expect of me and what’s expected of her. Many young people come to counselling expecting a magic wand waved to solve all their problems. While, as a counsellor, I bring lots of important and useful things to the room, there is no magic wand. They have to engage with the process, working alongside me to find a better way forward.

I then invited Aly to tell me what life is like for her at the moment. And I leave space – time for Aly to think and put words to it. She is not rushed here; this time is her time.

She slowly begins to open up: “I just don’t want to talk to people”, she says. “I feel sad. Alone. I don’t know what’s happening.”

Being different

As I listen, she tells me how much she hates being in public, particularly at school. She doesn’t feel like she can be who she is. She talks about the rejection and bullying at school for people who are different – and how the fear of that stops her from being herself. Amongst her peers, she feels unable to express or explore her gender identity.

One particular moment she relates is when she talked about joining the football team – which is made up solely of boys. Her friends laughed and teased her about it for weeks.

The picture Aly is building up is one of anxiety, low self-esteem and low mood. There’s also a hint of anger at her experiences. She expresses the feeling that it would be better to be dead than live like this.

When Aly has had the space she needs to express herself, I ask her some ‘silly’ questions, which help us probe into why she feels the way she does.

We talk about how she knows she feels sad and anxious. She says it’s when stays in her room and wants to be left alone. She also talks about panic attacks the night before school. And for her, she just never feels happy – nothing helps at the moment.

Before ending this first session, we talk about her goals for counselling. What does she want to get out of our sessions? 

Aly decides that she wants to feel happier. She wants to feel comfortable being who she is. At the moment for Aly, that feels like an impossible goal. 

Discovering hidden strength

Over the following session, I begin to help Aly understand her life stage and the emotions that come with this season. I’m normalising and validating all Aly feels – it is ok to feel as she does, and it is something many people like her feel.

We also talk a lot about anxiety and low mood: what they actually are and where they come from. Together, Aly and I begin to identify things that keep her feeling low or trigger a rise in anxiety, and the things that lift her mood and calm her anxiety.

Aly begins to understand that she can influence how she feels. The things she chooses to do might maintain a low mood or lift her mood. One thing she realises she’s stopped doing is drawing. She used to draw all the time, and she felt good when she drew. But somewhere down the line she stopped drawing. So we agree a small challenge for the coming weeks: to draw for 5 minutes a day. 

During the week, Aly manages to draw regularly and comes into our next counselling session obviously feeling encouraged. Drawing has made her feel just that little bit happier. And she has done it herself!

I build on this moment of recognition by talking about the other strengths I’ve heard from Aly. It’s important for Aly that she knows what counts as success for her. The fact that, despite feeling low, she gets up, washes and goes to school counts as a win. We talk about all the small wins of her day – all the moments when she does what she needs to do even though she feels miserable. Aly is beginning to see herself differently. She is seeing herself as stronger and more capable than she thought.

Processing anger

As Aly begins to gain some self-confidence, she also begins to face up to and express anger. It quickly becomes clear that her anger is rooted in not being accepted for who she is. She feels like she’s in a shell, and not allowed to break out of that shell and be herself.

When trying to process anger (and other big emotions), it really helps to create a metaphor around it. 

Is it like a volcano? A monster? What does it look like? What colours is it, and what shape? I invite Aly to draw a picture of her anger and explain it to me.

As we unpack her anger, we begin to see that there are some things Aly can deal with now. But there are others that are outside her control. So the question becomes, how do we learn to be ok with what’s not ok?

We talk about accessing different gender-diverse communities who feel the same as her, through services like Mermaids or GIDS. She can learn more about what she’s experiencing and read others’ stories too. Just knowing she’s part of a community will help her cope with what she can’t contain.

Fizz for blood

I also talk to Aly about toxic emotions. We imagine them like a bottle of fizz shaken around. How would it feel to have fizz for blood? It would be horrible, and also damaging to our insides.

Toxic emotions are the same. The emotions aren’t wrong, but if we don’t find a safe way of releasing them, they leave us feeling horrible and damage us inside.

With anger, it can be helpful to destroy things in a safe way to release the ‘fizz’. Aly realises that she could draw some of what she’s feeling, and I suggest that afterwards she could rip it up – not only has she got it out of her, but also destroyed it. 

Learning on the low days

Throughout counselling, Aly has up and down days. She finds this really hard, and her internal dialogue is one of failure. 

I help Aly to reframe her down days as learning days. These days are opportunities to experiment with different things to find out what works. It’s ok not to know – nobody knows; we all have to learn. 

Aly and I decide together that ‘failing’ is success, because it means she’s learnt what doesn’t work. She becomes more and more adept at reflecting on her bad days and figuring out what she can learn from them. 

I begin to see growing resilience in Aly. She tells me in one session about a low day she had. She stayed in bed all day. But when the evening came, she realised that she needed to get out of bed. Aly got up and watched a film with her parents. We talk about what a huge step forward that is: she had the strength to choose differently.

Ending well

As we come to the end of our counselling sessions, we revisit Aly’s goals. She can see that she feels happier. Although she still feels awkward about dressing the way she wants, she feels less afraid than she did. 

And Aly has made a huge decision: she has signed up for the football team next term.

I work with Aly on a timeline of her journey, mapping out where she started to where she is now. It’s a tremendous difference! I ask her how she did it – what thoughts did she give up and what habits did she pick up? 

As Aly and I discuss her journey, she is learning that she is the champion of her journey. It is her actions and choices that have brought about this change. And because she’s done it this time, she can do it again, whenever she runs into another stumbling block. 

I also make sure Aly knows where she can go if she hits crisis point. She puts numbers in her phone for services such as No Panic, YoungMinds or Papyrus. And she knows that she can come back to us too in the future.

Aly realises that she will still have wobbles and down days. But she has so much more self-confidence. She is empowered to deal with her emotions and feels that she is ok with who she is.

This fictional story is told by Toniiae, a Relate Northamptonshire counsellor specialising in children & young people.

The teenage years bring many ups and downs as young people explore who they are and work out who they want to be. Issues such as gender identity and sexuality can play a part in their journey, and for some teenagers, can bring emotional and mental health struggles. Counselling can make a real difference, helping them build resilience for both now and the years to come. Read more about the service we offer or contact us today to book counselling.

Pandemic decreases self-esteem

Just over a quarter of people in the East Midlands report decrease in self-esteem compared with pre-pandemic levels.

Just over a quarter (26%) of people living in the East Midlands say their self-esteem has decreased[i] compared with pre-pandemic levels. In contrast over a fifth (22%) say their self-esteem has increased[ii], which was also the same across the UK as a whole. In London almost a third (31%) reported an increase in self-esteem levels. The Welsh appear to be struggling with self-esteem the most – 31% reported a decrease and just 17% reported an increase.

This is according to new report ‘The Way We Are Now 2021’, released by leading relationships charity Relate and relationship experts eHarmony during Relationships Week (5-11 July). The report combines insights from counsellor focus groups and consumer polling, plus website and service data. It considers how single people and couples have reacted to lockdown easing and identifies key attitude and behaviour changes, as well as offering tips from counsellors for building healthy relationships with yourself and others.

Relationships Week logoThe research found that adults across the UK recognise the importance of good self-esteem with almost two thirds (64%) of adults surveyed agreeing [iii] that self-esteem is linked to success in a romantic relationship – this dropped to 58% of those living in the East Midlands. That’s why Relate Northamptonshire is using Relationships Week to encourage people to work on arguably the most important relationship of all: the one with themselves.

Are you one of the 25% who has been struggling with your self-esteem? We’d love to help you. Book counselling with us today or find out how individual counselling works.

#loveyourself

Relate Counsellor Holly Roberts said the pandemic appears to have contributed to a split in self-esteem levels: “A positive and balanced view of yourself is critical to overall wellbeing and building strong relationships of all kinds. It’s great that just over a fifth of people in the East Midlands feel their self-esteem has increased but for others it has taken a big hit. As we focus on ‘getting back out there’ don’t forget to take some time to also focus on yourself. Learning to love yourself can mean different things to different people – it might be joining a face-to-face exercise class now that’s possible again, saying no to a social engagement, or getting some support such as counselling.”

Across the whole of the UK, the top reasons for self-esteem increasing compared to pre the Covid-19 pandemic were paying more attention to physical health (30%), realising how strong they are for getting through a pandemic (24%) and taking up a new hobby (24%).  For those who said their self-esteem decreased during the pandemic, this was driven by inability to socialise with friends and family (48%), money worries (42%) and not prioritising physical health (40%). Comparison with others on social media (23%) was another key factor. Low self-esteem is currently more prevalent among women than men, with 32% of women saying their self-esteem decreased, compared to pre Covid-19 pandemic, whereas only 18% of men said the same.

“A positive and balanced view of yourself is critical to overall wellbeing.”

These findings are supported by Relate’s own website data which shows their page on low self-esteem has recently seen a 125% increase in page views, suggesting people are keen to work on their self-esteem now we are emerging from lockdown[iv].

Relate’s own data also shows that the number of 18-34 year olds attending counselling on their own at Relate has increased by 7% since before the pandemic.[v] They want to encourage even more millennials and Gen-Zers to get in touch by accessing their online self-help content and attending services such as individual counselling to work on issues relating to low self-esteem, friendship and finding love.

Self-help singles
The report[vi] shows over two in five (42%) single people said they either have or are more likely to enter into short but intense romantic relationships with one or more people since restrictions have relaxed. Three in ten (30%) of single people surveyed said they make more effort to learn from previous mistakes and/or recognise unhealthy romantic patterns. Over a fifth (23%) of people use self-help resources including books, online quizzes or advice from wellness influencers more than they did pre the Covid-19 pandemic. Interestingly, 18–34-year-olds surveyed were the most likely age group to say that they use self-help resources more than pre the Covid-19 pandemic (32%).

Over a quarter (28%) of single people who said they are more likely to enter into short but intense romantic relationships since restrictions have relaxed said it’s because they now have a better sense of what they want from a relationship, and a similar number (24%) don’t want to waste any more time. However, sex presents an issue for some. One in four (25%) feel ‘out of practice’ in the bedroom, while over one in eight (13%) are not ready to be intimate again.

Rachael Lloyd, relationship expert at eharmony said: “Lockdown was hard for a lot of people, but it also gave singles the time to work out who they are and what they’re looking for in a partner. While it’s only natural that some people feel nervous about having sex again, lockdown has also created a boom in more meaningful dating, with people keen to find real substance. At eharmony, we’ve seen this kind of thing happening before – traumatic environmental events invariably lead to spikes in dating and people wanting to connect deeply with each other.”

The state of Britain’s couple relationships
Looking at those in relationships, the pandemic has sped up how quickly couples[vii] are reaching common relationship milestones including saying ‘I love you’ for the first time (68%), getting a pet (59%), buying a house together (58%), getting engaged (63%) and even trying for a baby (61%).

And for couples who have been in a relationship for a year or longer and whose quality of relationship has gotten better since before the Covid-19 pandemic, reasons include more quality time together as a family (46%), the opportunity for more open and honest conversations with their partner (37%) and a spike for some in how often they have sex (20%).

Over one in eight (13%) respondents, however, are left feeling that the quality of their relationship has worsened[viii] through the pandemic. The report found that one in ten (10%) UK adults agreed that having more time apart due to lockdown lifting will help their relationship.

Holly adds: “A key issue we see in counselling is partners not prioritising quality time together. Lockdown meant this was no longer a bone of contention but as restrictions ease and calendars get busier, making time for one another requires a more concerted effort.”

Access the full report

‘The Way We Are Now’ report has been released to launch Relate’s annual Relationships Week (5-11 July). People can access self-help content on learning to love yourself throughout the Week and beyond, and information on services to help boost self-esteem is available at relate.org.uk/relationships-week. You can also download a copy of the full report.

Methodology

Relate and eharmony conducted a focus group with six practising Relate counsellors to gain insight into the state of relationships and single life based as we emerge from lockdown.

Censuswide on behalf of Third City conducted supplementary UK research in June 2021, among a nationally representative sample of 2,002 UK adults (18+) of which 176 were in the East Midlands. A boost of 1,008 UK singles was added to this sample – with a minimum quota set for 300 in Scotland, NI and Wales.

About Relate

Relate is the leading relationships charity and the Relate Federation is the largest provider of relationship support in England and Wales. Offering counselling, information, mediation and support to individuals, couples and families, we currently work online and on the phone with people of all backgrounds and sexual orientations at all stages of life. Find out more at relate.org.uk

About eharmony

eharmony launched in 2000, and now forms part of the ParshipMeet Group the international market leader in matchmaking. Real love remains at the heart of everything we do. In an increasingly fast-paced dating culture, we take a more bespoke and supportive approach to creating relationships. Our unique Compatibility Matching System brings together like-minded singles who share core values and personality traits, which are key indicators of relationship success. We are constantly evolving our matching system, designed by psychologists, which measures each member’s profile across 32 dimensions of compatibility – factoring in traits such as kindness, openness, and communication style. The results speak for themselves – every 14 minutes someone finds love on eharmony. Take our virtual tour at www.eharmony.co.uk.

[i] This finding combines respondents who said ‘Somewhat decreased’ or ‘Significantly decreased’

[ii] This finding combines respondents who said ‘Somewhat increased’ or ‘Significantly increased’

[iii] This finding combines respondents who said ‘Strongly agree’ or ‘Somewhat agree’

[iv] This finding is based on a 125% increase in page views between 25 April – 24 May 2021 compared to the previous 26 March – 24 April 2021

[v] This finding compares the monthly averages of 18-34 year olds accessing Relate’s counselling services on their own from February 2020 to May 2021.

[vi] This finding refers to 1,008 single people with min. 150 in Scotland, min. 200 in Wales and min. 250 in Northern Ireland. (18+)

[vii] This finding refers to those who are in a relationship and are planning on doing the following with their partner in the next six months:’ Saying I love you for the first time’, ‘Going on holiday together for the first time’, ‘Getting a pet’, ‘Moving into a house together’, ‘Buying a house together’, ‘Trying for a baby’, Getting engaged’, ‘Getting married’.

[viii] This finding combines respondents who said ‘Somewhat worse’ or ‘Much worse’

Strength Through Self-Care: A journey with Gill & Sara

This series tells fictional stories of the counselling journey. Drawn from our counsellors’ extensive experience, this story recounts how a couple discovered the importance of self-care to maintain a strong relationship.

strength through self-careGill & Sara were happily married for a number of years.  Both career-driven, in jobs they loved and loved their life together.  They had also adopted a young child together and loved being parents. Their life was busy – dropping their daughter off at childcare, out at work all day, weekends spent socialising and being a family.

Like so many others, the pandemic turned their routines completely upside down. Gill, a keyworker in a hospital, became busier than ever. Her job became more emotionally demanding and she worked long hours. Sara, however, was furloughed. She took over all the childcare and the household chores in response to the increased pressure on Gill.

Over time, however, Sara & Gill became estranged from each other.  Sara was more and more desperate as she was feeling isolated and unable to connect with GIll. She wanted to work on improving their relationship, but when she reached out Gill rejected her. Gill felt the relationship was ending and Sara was devastated.

Initial Meeting 

Sara contacted our support team and booked an appointment with us. Gill agreed to attend, even though she felt there was no hope for their relationship. As counsellors, we call this a split agenda: each partner is coming for opposing reasons. It’s a common way to begin counselling. 

Our initial assessment explored the roots of their opposing agendas. It became clear that Covid-19 had completely changed not only their routine, but also their roles and responsibilities in the relationship. 

Gill was very busy at work and expected Sara to do everything at home. She felt too tired for conversation or discussion.

Meanwhile, Sara felt resentful and angry towards Gill. She saw Gill going to work, where she could connect with people outside of the home and began to resent her freedom to socialise. This made her feel angry that Gill was not available for her. Sara also worried that Gill was saying negative things about her and their relationship at work.

There were no arguments – they had simply retreated from one another. The only conversations they had were practical; all other communication had stopped. 

Exploring emotions

At our first meeting Gill and Sara realised that they were both feeling equally upset and helpless. As happens in many relationships over time, they had started taking one another for granted. They needed to find a way to make space to stop, look, and really hear each other.

So we started our second session by exploring some of the emotions they were feeling – creating that safe space to voice their feelings and hear one another.

 Sara expressed her struggle to trust Gill. She felt invisible at home, and with Gill still having some social connections she worries about what was not being shared with her. She also worried that Gill was open to having a relationship with someone other than her.

As we discussed Sara’s emotions, Gill was surprised by the amount of anger and resentment Sara felt. These emotions had become elephants in the room that Sara simply couldn’t express. It’s only in the safe space of the counselling room that she began to voice her feelings.

A small step forward

It became apparent that both of them felt depleted. They had no time on their own at home, no space for self-care. And without re-energising self-care, they both felt exhausted. That exhaustion in turn stopped them from making quality time for each other. They weren’t turning to one another to off-load about challenges of the day, or making space to properly rest on their own.

They were each struggling to take the first step towards each other. So the counsellor set a small listening exercise to complete before the next counselling session. They sat down together a few times, over a coffee or a meal, and deliberately took time to listen to one another. Each time that had to include making at least one appreciation statement to each other, such as “I appreciate the way you make time for our daughter.”

Renewed communication

For Gill, this became a breakthrough moment and she affirmed her desire to make the relationship work. Sara was still struggling with a lack of trust, and was honest about her fear that she could not trust those words. 

Over the following weeks, they kept on making deliberate space for each other and expressing appreciation for the weight the other one was pulling in the family. Soon the humour and fun came back into their relationship. Humour is often the first thing to disappear when couples stop communicating. Hearing it return in this couple’s relationship demonstrated the success of their communication.

Rediscovering self-care

Our conversations began to shift from this point to looking forward. Gill and Sara didn’t want to go back to their pre-pandemic relationship: this was an opportunity to think about what kind of relationship they did want. 

They began to focus on the foundations of their relationship, and we discussed the importance of self-care for both of them, especially during the intensity of the pandemic. Both Gill and Sara began to realise that they needed to help their partner make space for self-care. They learnt to be more vocal about their own needs, and more attentive to what their partner needed. 

This meant that sometimes, when Gill had a very long day at work, Sara would run a bath for her. Or Gill would notice Sara feeling exhausted by the day and suggest that she went out for a walk for space by herself. 

Gill and Sara also decided to continue with their quality time together, purposefully listening to one another and building a new habit of appreciating each other. This was sometimes half an hour over dinner together; sometimes it was a cup of tea in the evening for 10 minutes; or they would head to bed half an hour early to wind down together. 

Ending Well

As counsellors, we don’t want to build relationships that are dependent on counselling. Instead, we help couples build confidence together. Gill and Sara had now formed a new vision for their relationship together, and felt confident enough to carry on. 

They were preparing already for lockdown easing, recognising that a further change of routine was coming. They decided to have ‘management time’ in their week, where they could discuss the practical things of life separately from the quality time for their relationship.

Sara expressed her relief that she had decided to come for counselling – and that Relate would be their safety net if things went awry again. She and Gill both enjoyed their refreshed connection: better communication, a renewed commitment to one another and ensuring space for self-care.

Building good habits as a couple can be challenging. As life changes and evolves, our relationship habits also need to evolve. Like Gill and Sara, we might need to be purposeful, not just for time together but also helping one another make space for self-care. If you find yourself struggling to communicate during a season of change, our counsellors can help you find a way forward.

This story was told by Lin, a Relate counsellor specialising in couples & families.

Many relationships have been deeply stretched by the coronavirus pandemic. We believe that these crises points can become moments to build new strength in intimate relationships. If you and your partner are struggling to communicate well, get in touch with us. It could be one of the best things you ever do for each other.

How to Set Healthy Boundaries

One thing Covid-19 has massively altered in our societies is boundaries and personal space. Over a year of social distancing outside our own bubbles has embedded social boundaries we would never have imagined before.

What are healthy boundaries? Here’s some advice from Relate Northants counsellor Sharon.

Sharon on Healthy Boundaries

Our preferences around personal space actually change over the whole of our lives for a variety of reasons. But this particular season has enforced boundaries for us, and broken habits of physical closeness.

So how do we find our way through lockdown easing? Do we throw ourselves headfirst into the physical connections we had before? Do we hold back? Where do we want to be?

These are very important questions, especially for couples and families. Different household members building new boundaries at different points is likely to stimulate a lot of arguments!

Where do you want to set your boundaries?

Exploring boundaries as a couple starts with understanding yourself. The exercise below will help you notice how different circumstances affect you. You and your partner should work on this separately, then come together to discuss what you found out.

  • Think about the different things you did over the last week or two. Where would you place yourself on the spectrum of feeling safe to feeling unsafe?
  • If you felt unsafe in a situation, where do you think that feeling came from?
  • Which situations do you want to include within your boundaries and which do you still want to avoid? Some situations may feel too difficult, but there may be others you’d like to readjust to.

You can draw this out if it helps you. Draw a ‘fence’ in a square. Write on the outside places you didn’t feel safe in blue. Write on the inside places you did feel safe in green. Are there any blue places that you’d like to extend your boundaries to? Perhaps places or activities that you want to readjust to? Connect these up with your boundary line.My boundaries diagram

Working together

The next thing to do is compare your drawing with your partner’s drawing. This should be done without judgement – respect how your partner feels. When you’ve understood the other’s position, you can then negotiate something that satisfies both your desires without compromising the other.

Over the coming months, revisit this boundary map as your own feelings and desires adjust. Keep being honest and realistic with each other and above all keep communicating!

Growing Together

Couples have been under pressure throughout the pandemic in hugely significant ways. Coming out of lockdown will produce its own pressures, some of which may reveal weaknesses in our relationships. But, time and time again at Relate Northants, we have couples leaving counselling saying things like “you saved our relationship”. If you need an impartial guiding voice to bring your relationship back to full strength, you can book a conversation with us.

Identifying Time: A mindfulness tool from Yvonne

Approaching the end of lockdown brings the opportunity to live differently. We don’t have to go back to how things were before if we don’t want to.  So how do we figure out where we want to be?

Yvonne, a Relate Northants counsellor, gives you the following tips on…

Identifying Time

Nothing else has affected a whole nation’s lives so completely like the pandemic and the way we spend our time has had to change.

There are many things that we have been longing to do. But there have also been many things we’ve enjoyed not doing.

So, instead of drifting back into life lived at full tilt, here’s one way we can think carefully about our time and priorities.

The Time Diagram

Step One: Draw a big circle. Then, think about some of the key things that make you, you. For instance, the work you do, your hobbies, your relationship, being a parent, etc. Label each of your sections with one of those things.

Step Two: How much time does each segment take over a typical week? Fill a portion of the segment in to represent that time and label it with the activity from your list from step one

Step Three: When you’re done, take a look at your chart. Is there something missing here that you’d like to include in your life? Would you like to reallocate some of the time on your chart?

Thinking through our lives in this way can help us connect the way we use our time with our sense of identity. It can reveal surprising things that are missing.

 For example, do we make time for self-care? What less important things suck our time away? What’s out of balance?

Going further

Noticing how our time is spent helps us be mindful about what we do and how much time we spend on it. Of course, for some of us, we can feel like we simply don’t know who we are or how to start reclaiming ourselves.

An experienced counsellor is able to help you bring into focus not just where you are but also where you wish you were – and help you get there. Reach out to us to book an appointment. We’d love to be part of your journey.

Debbie’s Anxiety-Busting Sandwich

Stage four of the roadmap out of lockdown is coming – even if the date is still uncertain. Uncertainty about the future, with new variants and lockdowns overshadowing new social freedom, can bring low-level or substantial anxiety. If you’re feeling anxious or apprehensive about what’s to come, Relate Northants counsellor Debbie has just the thing for you.

And it’s a sandwich…

Debbie’s Anxiety-Busting Sandwich

Anxiety often arises from the feeling of being out of control. During the pandemic, the sense of being out of control has been much stronger. We can often feel that we are at the mercy of this unseen virus and fast-changing government legislation.

So let’s draw a sandwich.

anxiety busting sandwich - living in the nowThe bottom slice of bread represents the past. The past is fixed: although we can change how we think or feel about it, we can’t change what happened in the past. You might find it helpful to write down some things from the past 2 years that make you feel anxious, or play on your mind.

The top slice of bread represents the future. The future is uncertain: we can influence it but we can’t control it. What things about the future are most often on your mind? Write them down in this slice of bread.

The sandwich filling is the now. And, guess what, we can control now! It might be the ‘now’ of the next 10 minutes, or the ‘now’ of today – but it is in our control.

What do you want to fill your sandwich with? This can be your choice.

Focussing on the present moment like this can really help anxiety. It allows us to take control of what’s in our reach.  And, recognising the past can’t be changed and the future can’t be controlled, I can choose to let them go. Now, this present moment, is what matters.

Getting to the root of anxiety

Visualisations can really help to calm anxiety, but often we need to dig a bit deeper to get to the root causes – and to deal with the things we’re carrying from the past. You can reach out to us through our free helpline or find out more about individual counselling. Counselling is free at the moment for Northants residents. We’d love to help you.

How does webcam counselling work?

Since the pandemic, Relate Northamptonshire adapted quickly to provide counselling via webcam and telephone. We wanted to continue supporting people even though our traditional practice of face-to-face appointments wasn’t available.

The experience has been so positive for both our counsellors and our clients, that we are going to continue offering these digital services alongside face-to-face counselling.

So, what can you expect from Zoom counselling? How does it work? Watch the video below to find out:

Don’t have time to watch? Here’s the highlights:

  • Convenient: you’re doing it from your own home. No need to travel anywhere & in the comfort of your own home.
  • Same counselling: the service you receive from the counsellor, and the range of support they can offer, is exactly the same. We can provide individual & couples’ counselling, and counselling for children over age 13.
  • Easy: after booking an appointment, you’ll receive an email with a Zoom link for the session. Just click on this when it’s time for your meeting. Either a phone, tablet or computer (with a webcam) will work.

If you would like to book a counselling session with us, get in touch today.

The Little Things

*Diane came to motherhood later in life. Her little boy *Bobby was her only child, so this experience was very precious to her as something she wouldn’t repeat. So, when the pandemic came she faced the loss of many hopes and dreams she’d had for this once-in-a-lifetime experience and her motherhood story predominantly happened behind closed doors.

Bump to Baby

mother in mask, carrying young bIt started for her in pregnancy. She recalls her sister-in-law complaining about people constantly touching her bump – an uninvited invasion of her privacy. But as Diane commented, “no-one saw me at the whale stage… wouldn’t it be lovely if someone other than my husband could touch my bump!” Her only pregnancy felt like it passed by unwitnessed.

As an older mum at 41, Diane was classed as ‘high-risk’ and cared for under a specialist team. She was blessed to have a problem-free pregnancy and smooth elective C-Section. 

However, at 2 weeks old, Bobby became very poorly and had to return to the high dependency unit for 10 days. She spent those 10 days alone with him in hospital. Another moment of isolation where before there would have been the strengthening comfort of husband, family and friends.

Thankfully, Bobby has thrived since this stay in hospital. Back at home, Diane could begin to settle into being mum – albeit in the midst of coronavirus.

Lasagnes on the Doorstep

Diane remembers the practical ways she has supported friends and family when they had a new baby. “Lasagnes on the doorstep”, representing the way in which community holds new families together. This simply wasn’t possible in the same way during Bobby’s early baby days. 

The pandemic also meant she “missed out on the feeling special”. She didn’t experience the fuss and love and delight that are a part of becoming a mother and having a baby. There was no gathering around to welcome a new child, or to affirm and honour a new mother. 

The isolation also undermined the informal community contact that can do so much to keep anxiety at bay. Like most new mothers during Covid-19, Diane couldn’t “sense-check the little things”. She was reliant on the wildly varied, unreliable wisdom of the internet to work out whether to give her son cucumber or when to introduce peanut butter. She missed the lived experience of real-life mums, and the breadth of approach to give her confidence in carving her own way.

Post-Natal Anxiety

Fairly early on in her motherhood journey, Diane was diagnosed with post-natal anxiety (PNA) and referred for support through her midwives. She accessed cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) to help her challenge anxious thoughts and reshape her mindset. 

Perinatal mental health issues affect between 10-20% of women in the UK. With the added complication of covid-19, recovery is harder. It is more difficult to do the things that help you overcome your anxieties because of lockdown – and harder to draw on the support of others. 

Community connection

In the midst of this isolation, however, grew points of connection and healthy habits that supported Diane on her journey.

Diane’s connection with *Abbie, *Holly and other mums through a Bump and Baby group was “a real godsend”. Diane knew she could send out a message at 3am and get a response within minutes – and there aren’t many contexts where you can do that!

The group become her informal community with other mums. Her opportunity to support and be supported – to draw confidence from others’ experience. 

Diane also quickly recognised the importance of fresh air and exercise. Going for walks with Bobby helped her “get out and have a bit of headspace”

Aspirations of Motherhood

A shower. Eating with two hands. A solo toilet visit. Half an hour to myself. 

The aspirations of motherhood are a lot smaller than you might think! But for Diane these little things went a long way. They were precious moments of self-care in the midst of constant childcare.

She was particularly blessed by friends and family who didn’t wait to be invited. In the midst of post-natal anxiety, it is really hard to ask for help. A text from a friend saying “we’re coming to visit – when would be good?” was exactly what she needed. And if they arrived with food, even better!

Diane recounts the visits of one friend with two older children. During their regular visits, her friend would hold Bobby while she drank a coffee and ate something. Just the simple opportunity to eat two-handed and drink a hot coffee was an immense blessing. 

It’s the Little Things

Diane’s story demonstrates how much difference the little things can make when we’re struggling with anxiety. There was no need for grand gestures; no reason to be put off because the problem seemed too big. It was the friends who did the little things that made all the difference. 

A lasagne on the doorstep. A coffee and cake. A proactive visitor. A 3am text conversation. Real-world answers to simple questions.

If you know someone suffering with anxiety, be encouraged. You can’t solve their mental health struggles for them. But you can be proactive in bringing a little light and a little hope into their day. Those little things can pave the way to recovery. And if you suffer with anxiety – whether postnatal or not – counselling can help you build better mental health. Get in touch with our counsellors to find your way forward.

And if you find yourself struggling with anxiety, like Diane – please know that we can help you. You may just want to access our free helpline to book a 30-minute chat with qualified counsellor, to help you clear your head. Or if you feel the need to explore deeper issues, get in touch with our support team to book in for individual counselling. We often have funding to allow free or subsidised counselling, so don’t let cost keep you back.

This is a true story, told during an interview with three mums for Maternal Mental Health week. *Names changed to protect their identity.

A Story To Be Told

One of the most challenging seasons for women is motherhood. Becoming a mother deeply impacts your body – the physical process of birth and a massive disruption to your sleep cycle. It also has a huge impact on your emotions, being a season of extreme change in your daily life and relationships. And, with both these things comes the challenge to your mental health.  

This isn’t a thing that can be fixed once and for all. It’s situational. At times when life is easy, we feel great. But then, circumstances bring us to the limits of our resilience… and we grow, developing the resources and strength we need to thrive in difficult seasons.

Holly’s story

mother and baby in bed

When the pandemic hit, *Holly was in her second trimester. She and her husband began shielding straight away following government guidance, and prepared for the birth of their son. 

Trying to take ever-changing restrictions into account when writing a birth plan was tricky. Holly ended out with plans A, B, C, D and E! But when it came to *Amos being born, nothing went to plan. Instead of plan A (a water birth at home), Holly had to go to hospital as soon as labour started and eventually gave birth in theatre. Amos got an infection after the birth, which meant Holly staying in with him on her own for 5 days.

Finally, they were reunited with Holly’s husband at home and began to settle in as a family.

A cathartic process

3 months after she gave birth, Holly met an acquaintance, and found herself telling her birth story in great detail. It was a “cathartic process” for her – she realised she had not expressed the trauma and emotion of Amos’s birth and early days until that moment. 

In fact, when we go through any traumatic experience, it really helps to talk it through again and again. To retell the events and the emotions we felt. Without connection to a ready-made community of mums, Holly didn’t have opportunities for this informal therapy. 

Realising the value of revisiting her experiences, Holly took advantage of the Birth Stories Service at her hospital. This gave her the opportunity to sit with a consultant midwife and go through everything that had happened. She could ask questions to understand why things happened the way they did. The midwife was able to explain the decision-making process of the medical staff. And Holly was listened to as she shared her concerns about the care she received. 

Holly found there was tremendous value in being heard. It enabled her to put to rest the trauma of her birthing experience; to reconcile the events against what she had hoped for. She was able to face and acknowledge the sadness she felt and recognise the things she could treasure.

The price of sleep deprivation

Birth isn’t the only challenge new mums face. When Amos was a few months old, he went through a season of struggling to sleep. Holly walked miles with him in the pram or sling, in all weathers. She had weeks of holding him with barely half an hours’ break. And night after night, she was up for hours comforting and feeding her son.

We all recognise the cost of sleep deprivation on our mental health. And the price was far higher for Holly because family and friends were unable to support her in the ways she most needed. She spoke to her doctor about how low she was feeling – and the doctor told her to get more sleep. Impossible when no-one else can be in your house, and no-one else can hold your baby! 

Creative thinking brought some relief to Holly through local friends. One of them would show up on the doorstep at naptime, and take Amos for a walk in the pram. Amos would get his sleep, and Holly got precious time to herself. This became an opportunity for rest, not just physically but mentally and emotionally too.

Holly also began to make regular video calls to family on long afternoons. As well as capturing Amos’ interest, it relieved the repetitiveness and loneliness of life stuck at home. It was an opportunity to connect with someone else and enter their world for a while.

Neither of these things were the solution for Holly’s struggle. But they were a part of her journey to better mental wellbeing – they drew her back from the brink.

Trust in yourself

Another big learning curve for Holly was self-trust. Many mums do lots of reading and research to help them be good parents. Holly was no different! It felt even more significant when so many informal sources of information were hard to reach. But, like *Abbie, she found the books and the social influencers she followed reduced her confidence as a mum. Each one presented their vision of perfect parenting; each had their own theory of how to do it. But which were right? Which were actually achievable for real-life mums? 

In reality, there is no right way for most things and very few wrong ways. There’s just you and your child, and what works for you both. So Holly stopped reading books that were making her anxious. She stepped back from social media. And she made a choice to trust her instincts. Even as a first-time mum, no-one knows Amos like she does. She can trust herself to be exactly the mother Amos needs – and seek guidance when she decides she needs it. 

A beautiful story

Holly’s journey into parenting has only just begun. Yet, already, she is developing strength and resilience that wasn’t there before. 

She has discovered a number of things that are true for all of us for our mental health:

  1. Telling your story matters. Whether it’s about having a baby or about something else entirely, sharing your journey through a trauma is in itself a cleansing experience. Seek out people you can share your story with – whether specialists like counsellors at Relate, or close friends and family.
  2. Be creative to get what you need. Sometimes, we might recognise what we need – for Holly it was rest and space – but it seems impossible to find. Yet, with a bit of creative thinking, Holly could carve out a small amount of space to get her through a tough season. It was enough to clear her thinking and give her fresh strength for the rest of the day. If you know what you need, but aren’t sure how to get there, start thinking creatively with your friends & family.
  3. Notice what undermines your self-confidence and find ways to cut it short. It might mean self-discipline around social media, or perhaps pulling back from some destructive relationships.

Most of all, you don’t have to tackle seasons of mental and emotional pressure alone. Relate’s expert counsellors are ready to hear your story. They can help you make sense of what’s happening in your internal world. And they can work out with you where you want to be, and how to get there. Don’t struggle on alone – find out about individual counselling to draw on our expertise.

If you’re interested the Birth Stories Service in Northamptonshire, visit Bump and Baby Talk.

This is a true story, told during an interview with three mums for Maternal Mental Health week. *Names changed to protect their identity.

You can’t be supermum every day

When we think of motherhood, we all think of the beauty of it. It’s a precious time full of love and joy… All of this is true, but this is not all it is. The other side of motherhood is coping with fundamental changes to your body. It includes massive emotional highs and lows, and the tremendous mental pressure that sleep deprivation brings.

Now throw a global pandemic into the mix… What has it been like becoming a mother during lockdown?

Abbie’s story

motherhood and mental health“Just because something is common doesn’t mean that it’s easy… Giving birth is such an overwhelming experience.”

For *Abbie, as for so many first time mums, birth was a shock. No amount of reading or conversation can prepare you for it. She had planned to have a home birth, but safely delivered *Cara via an emergency c-section. Her story is common, as she puts it – but is also deeply emotional and traumatic.

Emotional Recovery

Dealing with the overwhelming experience of her story in the isolation of lockdown was very hard. Most her friends don’t have children. And, without access to a community of mums through baby groups, it was harder to find people to process with. Abbie said she eventually sought out “people I could cry with” and shared her story in all its details. This was an essential part of her recovery.

Abbie also dealt with anger. She felt angry at friends that haven’t make the effort to see Cara. Even though she recognised that the situation was to blame rather than her friends, it still hurt. That anger is a valid response to her loss in such a valuable time.

Entering another space

But there were many things for which Abbie was grateful in this season. She learnt what she needed to build good mental health despite the isolation.

Audio books were particularly important for her. It didn’t matter what she was listening to (as long as it wasn’t about parenting); it was taking her brain into another space. The protection of her bubble also escalated her anxieties and fears, turning small issues into huge problems. By getting out of her own four walls, both mentally and physically, she regained perspective for her day.

Finding Help

In many ways, the pandemic pulled support out from under all new mums. The informal support that so many mums have taken for granted wasn’t available for these mothers. No-one coming and cleaning your house, or holding your baby, or booking a playdate. And even formal support predominantly moved online, meaning little physical connection with health visitors or doctors.

For Abbie, this was compounded by her immediate friends not being parents. They didn’t have the experience to anticipate her needs, or recognise the monotony of her days.

She was tremendously blessed by her digital bumps and babies group, including mums like *Holly and *Diane. Although developing relationships and trust was harder than it might have been in person, there is now a wonderful depth of support. It has become a group where Abbie and the other mums can be vulnerable with each other. In fact, they have stood in the gap for her: “these mums have seen Cara grow up more than my closest friends and even some of my family”.

Perhaps most poignantly for Abbie, however, wasn’t the practical support but the validation she got from her own mum. Abbie’s mum allowed Abbie to find her own way as a parent. She didn’t offer advice unless asked and trusted her to know what Cara needed. This increased Abbie’s confidence in herself as a mum, which felt especially important when she didn’t have the company of other mums to encourage her.

Rejecting Guilt

The opposite of this validation was the “mum-guilt” Abbie battled. It might be a book about parenting, or an Instagrammer she was following… As parents, we can never tick all the boxes or measure up to all these expectations. Abbie decided to reject the guilt she felt. As she puts it, “you can’t be supermum every day”. She accepted her down days, just as she accepts Cara’s down days.

Throughout our conversation, I was struck by Abbie’s self-awareness. She has been able to recognise and accept her emotions. She’s been mindful of what she needs to keep healthy perspective on her life. And she has developed confidence in her own parenting – she trusts herself.

What about you?

Becoming a parent can lead to a huge amount of anxiety. But you don’t have to live in anxiety. Like Abbie, you can learn to trust yourself. You can develop an awareness of what you need to be a good parent. Flourishing Babies is a Northamptonshire service that helps parents build their self-confidence. Their extensive services are available both before and after the birth of your child and support you to become a confident, capable parent.

If you are struggling with anxiety, Relate’s counsellors can help you find your feet as a mum. Find out more about our individual counselling services or contact us now to have a chat with our support team.

This is a true story, told during an interview with three mums for Maternal Mental Health week. *Names changed to protect their identity.