By Courtney Armstong, LPC, Author
“The Therapeutic ‘Aha!’: 10 Strategies for Getting Your Clients Unstuck”
“I know it’s irrational, but I can’t stop the extreme anxiety I feel around people because I’m a 6’3″ tall woman and fear they’ll think I’m a freak,” said Natalie, a 35-year old nurse. Though she was comfortable working with patients, was happily married, and had two very close friends, she couldn’t shake the anxiety she felt around colleagues and large groups of people.
“My last therapist taught me relaxation exercises, how to talk back to my negative thoughts, and encouraged me to get out socially with small groups,” Natalie added. “But none of that seems to work. The anxiety just hijacks my brain.”
She’s right. Sometimes, no matter how we try to outsmart it, our emotional brains are primed to override the rational mind with patterns that persist until we intervene with something this feeling brain can understand: a compelling emotional experience that completely changes how we feel, not just how we think.
Orchestrating such felt experiences with your clients is easier than you think. Following are 10 strategies from my book, “The Therapeutic ‘Aha!”‘ that you can use to engage the emotional brain and help stuck clients move forward.
1. Align, Lift, and Lead
Most of us were taught to validate our client’s feelings. However, if you spend too long merely validating your client’s pain, it can amplify negative feelings in the emotional brain. To help your client access positive states of mind, you have to find a way to lift and lead them emotionally. To make this transition, I recommend a language pattern that I call “Align, Lift, and Lead.”
You align with the client by reflecting your understanding of the problem, and then you lift the client by affirming her strengths, and lead her by suggesting her desired response to the situation. Here is how I used this language pattern with Natalie:
“Natalie, I understand that you’ve had these experiences where you’ve not felt comfortable around large groups of people because you’ve not been sure how they would react to your height. Being a nurse, you’re obviously an empathic person and are probably pretty good at helping people feel at ease. I’m seeing you using these people skills in other social situations, too, realizing that a person’s reaction just tells you something about them, and you can sense how to put them at ease.”
Reframing her problem this way helped Natalie feel more socially competent and encouraged.
2. Visualize the Desired Response
Because the emotional brain learns better through metaphor and imagery than through words, another strategy you can use is to have your client visualize her desired response. I suggested Natalie visualize herself successfully navigating a social situation and imagine feeling curious, secure, and calm. Then, I asked her to imagine something in nature that could represent her mind working this way. Natalie smiled and said, “Muir Woods with the redwood trees.” Visualizing the peacefulness of the tall trees in this forest helped her feel calmer and gave her a sense of belonging.
3. Identify Inspiring Goals
Instead of setting dry, lifeless goals like, “Client will practice relaxation skills and talk to two new people per week,” explore potential goals that have real value and meaning for your client.
When I explored inspiring goals with Natalie, she began talking about her desire to have lunch with a group of colleagues. They’d been inviting her to lunch for several weeks, and she liked the idea of connecting with fellow nurses. Targeting a small group of people she wanted to be around felt more intriguing and doable to her and less like a task.
4. Locate the Root of an Emotional Conflict
Even though Natalie felt encouraged by this goal, she still felt a knot in her stomach at the thought of going out to lunch with these colleagues. I asked Natalie to follow the sensations in her stomach back to the first time she could remember having a similar feeling. Her eyes widened as she recalled being teased during lunchtime in middle school by a group of kids who called her names like “Amazon” and “Sasquatch.”
She had coped by avoiding the school cafeteria and doing her homework in the library during lunch. As a result, she avoided her bullying classmates and was praised by her teachers for being studious. Natalie gasped as she realized she was doing the same thing at her job-skipping lunch with peers to avoid fears of being ridiculed and getting praised by her boss for being so dedicated. Once Natalie made this connection, she understood her emotional brain had simply continued the pattern because it had been adaptive for her in the past.
5. Reverse Traumatic Memories
Natalie was excited to have made this connection, but just having cognitive insight into the cause of her social anxiety didn’t change it. In fact, recent neuroscience discoveries have shown us that in order for the emotional brain to change a response that was once adaptive, we have to recall the old memory while eliciting a new experience that invalidates the beliefs that got attached to the disturbing memory.
6. Change Beliefs with Imagery and Metaphor
To change Natalie’s negative self-concept, we revisited her imagery of the redwood tree-tall, beautiful, and majestic. I suggested she imagine the smaller trees laughing at the redwoods for being so tall and see the absurdity of it. Imagining this scene made Natalie laugh and realize every tree had its natural place in the world, and so did she.
7. Conjure Up Compelling Stories
Another way you can reverse the meaning of a traumatic event is to have your client finish her story with a new ending. For instance, she can finish it with a later moment in her life when she was out of danger, in a better situation, or felt competent or empowered.
The first time Natalie told her story about being bullied at school, she ended the story with an incident where a boy asked her to dance, then brought out a chair to the dance floor and stood on it so he could be as tall as she was. Everyone laughed, which made Natalie cry.
When I prompted her to consider a new ending to this story, she said, “Well, I’ve been happily married for 15 years, and my husband said he was attracted to me because I was tall. He thought I looked like a graceful dancer.” She smiled and realized that ending her story this way suddenly caused the experiences she had with the boys in her youth to seem trivial.
8. Prime with Play and Humor
Using play and humor are also great ways to dissipate anxiety and trigger new perspectives on events. Natalie and I acted out a role-play in which I let her play a woman with a snobby attitude teasing her while I played Natalie. She began the role-play by wrinkling her nose and saying,
“Who invited you to lunch with us, Amazon lady?”
I answered by simply saying, “Linda invited me.”
“Well I hope you don’t think I can be seen walking next to you, Sasquatch,” Natalie continued. “And you should really consider doing something different with your hair.”
I smiled and replied, “Oh, what a shame. I fixed my hair this way just for you.”
Natalie laughed and we continued the role-play for a few more minutes. Letting Natalie play the character she feared reduced her anxiety because she realized how insecure a person would have to be to make such insensitive comments.
9. Rouse with Rhythm and Music
Music can influence mood and neurochemistry, and it can entrain the brain to calmer states. One activity many clients enjoy is creating a playlist of tunes that evoke desired responses. Natalie started her playlist with “Creep” by Radiohead, which reflected her fears of being a social reject. Then we added “Everyday People,” by Sly and the Family Stone, which was more upbeat and affined that humans come in different colors, shapes, and sizes. Natalie ended her playlist with “Can’t Keep a Good Woman Down,” by Mary J. Blige, which helped her feel empowered.
10. Integrate Mindful Movement
Movement can also engender desired states of mind. Dancing to her playlist helped Natalie shake off anticipatory anxiety, but I also suggested she could place her hand on her abdomen to calm her stomach and invoke a sense of self-compassion. She practiced this gesture while she slowed her breathing and imagined the beautiful redwood trees. Over the next several weeks, Natalie reported that her anxiety completely dissipated and she was able to comfortably enjoy lunch with her co-workers and other social situations.
Neuroscience is now suggesting that in order to change recurring emotional and behavioral patterns, we can’t just talk about change at the cognitive level, we have to evoke an emotional experience that changes patterns in the emotional regions of the brain. Creating these emotional experiences not only triggers profound transformation, but it can also be fun and uplifting for both you and your clients.
I hope this article has given you ideas for new techniques you can use, and that it leads to many “Aha!” moments for you and your clients.
Courtney Armstrong is a licensed professional counselor in Chattanooga, Tenn., and the author of ”The Therapeutic ‘Aha!’: 1 O Strategies for Getting Your Clients Unstuck.” She also offers training and free resources for therapists at her website: courtneyarmstrong.net.
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