I love therapy, but that wasn’t always the case as my first therapy experience was not a good one. I was in my second semester of Junior year of college and had lost my dad 5 months prior. I had been struggling with panic attacks for a month or two by now, and I could tell it was impacting my school work and my relationships with my boyfriend and friends. I decided to go see a counselor on campus. He concluded that after two appointments I was just stressed about “typical student things” like final exams coming up. I found myself feeling very offended and turned off from therapy. I am not concluding that school counselors are all like this, it’s just the experience I had.
A couple of months later I wanted to give therapy another chance and found a therapist off campus. This was one of the best decisions for my anxiety. It was refreshing to have someone to talk to that was not a family member or friend and was completely unbiased. My therapist gave me a lot of tools for therapy, and life in general that I still use today. Below are some of the biggest tools I took away from therapy.
EMDR stands for, Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing Therapy. I have tried to research this, but I am still unclear on exactly how it works, I just know it worked for me. It has something to do with bilateral stimulation in the brain. For this therapy, I held a “tapper” in each hand which would alternatively vibrate. With my eyes closed and as I was feeling these vibrations, my therapist had me walk through the night of my dad’s death. Every time I got to something that was really upsetting for me, we would focus on that moment. She would have me repeat the story up to that point multiple times. Sometimes an entire therapy session would be about one small detail of that night. She helped me realize that a big source of my anxiety was about the trauma from that night. EMDR Therapy did not make me forget what happened that night, but I now look back on it as a far distant memory instead of living through it again every time I think about it.
My therapist taught me to visualize positive, happy moments when I was stressed or anxious. She had me first imagine a location that brought me happiness and calmness. At that moment, that location was a local park for me. There were countless days when I would bike to that park and spend hours with a book, stretching, studying or simply being there. This park brought me joy. My therapist then had me think of a person, or figure that I associated with profoundness, happiness, and calmness. I struggled with this one because she said it was helpful not to choose a friend or family member. With her guidance, I ultimately chose Gandhi. I was then to imagine Gandhi at the park with me. This is what I would picture when I was really anxious and felt a panic attack coming. This visualization helped me to calm down, and think about how small of an issue this was in the grand scheme of things. This one sounds kind of silly to me now, but even now when I imagine that park with Gandhi there, it brings me calmness.
Why It’s Hard For Me to Open Up In Relationships
This has nothing to do with anxiety or my dad’s death, but rather about my childhood. My therapist helped me realize why I might be so hesitant to open up in relationships. This made me more mindful of that and essentially helped me to change that. My husband and I had only been dating for 10 months when I lost my dad, and therapy was incredibly helpful for us to get through that new territory. In addition to learning skills to cope with grief and anxiety, I learned tools for relationships.
Although I’m sure my husband wishes my therapist told me to avoid cats, as in the animal, that’s not what she was referring to. CATS stands for caffeine, alcohol, tobacco, and sugar – items which can sometimes promote anxiety. These are all items my therapist said avoiding would help reduce anxiety. I didn’t use tobacco products, so that was pretty easy for me to avoid. At this point in my anxiety journey, I had noticed caffeine was sometimes playing a part of my anxiety and panic attacks. I found the elevated heartbeat after drinking coffee brought me straight to anxiety. That’s when I decided to stop drinking coffee or caffeinated teas. Avoiding alcohol during anxious times was beneficial as well. I didn’t want to start relying on alcohol to calm me down, or start associating it with calmness. Avoiding sugar was also very beneficial for reducing my stress and anxiety. This helped reduce those “sugar crashes” and low blood sugar.
Learning to talk about what happened
When my dad first passed away, I never really talked about it. I was 20, and none of my friends had gone through something like that, so they didn’t really know what to say. Therapy helped me to realize that talking about it made it easier to process what had happened. This lesson has evolved into me being able to better communicate about things that upset me.
The list above has had a massive, positive impact on my anxiety journey. I have therapy to thank for a lot of my milestones with anxiety. I do not go as frequently as I did when I was suffering from panic attacks, but I believe it is still just as beneficial. Therapy can help with grief, anxiety, relationships, communication, or even help with making decisions in life. I have moved around a lot, which forces me to find new therapists. I’ve had some I love, and some I don’t really click with. I once had a therapist “break up” with me because we had nothing else to talk through. This was quite devastating but did not turn me against therapy. I think it’s most important to find a therapist that works for you.