When entertainment industry professional, Mia, began experiencing anxiety, she decided to try online therapy. It opened the door to understanding how past events were having a huge impact on her current life…
When I started having panic attacks at work, I realised that I needed some help with my mental health. I’d been feeling disconnected in my relationship and unable to work out how to navigate tricky situations, let alone communicate what I needed to other people. I was near to tears most of the time and feeling alone, unsupported and hopeless.
Initially, I was able to access six free online counselling sessions through my union, which luckily happened at the start of the pandemic, when all our lives were upended. I found it useful to be able to air my feelings with an objective listener, but when the free sessions ended I had a sneaking suspicion that there might be a lot more work for me to do. I looked into online therapy as an option and had my first meeting to establish what I wanted to work on.
I’m generally a confident and sociable person, and my job definitely requires a certain amount of extrovert tendencies, so it took me a long time and an outside opinion to realise I was experiencing a generalised anxiety disorder. For some reason, I didn’t think ‘anxiety’ applied to me — in my mind, it was only shy or nervous people who suffered from it.
It was, however, becoming completely debilitating. The smallest of conflicts could send me into a spin and I felt like the university friends I was living with didn’t really care for me, like I was a spectator of their friendships rather than connecting meaningfully with anyone. I thought this was my fault and that I was failing.
Added to this, my career path in the entertainment industry involves a lot of uncertainty and I couldn’t remember a time when I didn’t look into the future with a vague sense of dread. When the pandemic was added to the mix, my entire industry shut down overnight, which sharpened the sense of precariousness to a knife-edge.
Despite coming from a loving and encouraging family, and having achieved lots while still young, I had no real self-esteem or belief that my life would work out. There was a huge gap between the smiley high-achiever everyone saw and the scared and insecure person I felt on the inside. I struggled with how little control I felt over my life and somewhere very secret I had consigned myself to a default sense of melancholy.
My initial online meeting with my therapist became around a year of weekly sessions. I thought it might be strange to engage in therapy through a screen but actually, I found being able to do my sessions from the comfort of home really useful. I didn’t have to worry about facing a waiting room full of strangers after an intense hour excavating my most traumatic memories, or cramming onto a packed tube and weeping into someone’s armpit. I could sit and reflect if I wanted, draw if I wanted, do yoga or move my body if I wanted. I could have a cup of tea by myself and feel safe.
I do have to say it was interesting at Christmas going to my family home and trying to talk about my mother while hiding in a room upstairs, though it was amazing to have the opportunity to be assertive with her literally minutes after working on it. Doing therapy online meant that I could slot my healing into the changing rhythms of life — from the lockdown, to working freelance, to working 45-hour weeks again. I only find the fact that I can neither confirm or deny whether my therapist has legs a passing oddity now.
We realised fairly soon that my super-active rational brain and my need to be a good student could be unhelpful in the process of getting to grips with what was dragging me down. I’m actually smiling now as I remember my very first session where I was so keen to ‘do therapy well’ that I gamely reeled off every awful thing that’s happened to me. Surprisingly, this made me feel terrible and I did nor receive a gold star for my efforts. We reflected on this in the next session, and somewhere along the line I decided not to write any notes on the process and just see what I could soak up along the way instead.
My therapist suggested EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitisation & Reprocessing) therapy alongside more traditional approaches. The aim was to allow my subconscious brain to float memories up to the surface. Using various processes, we’d settle on a memory that caused me strong — perhaps distressing — feelings and then allow that memory to be present. We’d spend a little time there while I did bilateral taps with my hands on my chest and watched my therapist’s hand move from left to right on the screen.
Sometimes if the memory was causing me a lot of trouble, we’d employ other tactics to distract me like repeating word sequences such as ‘tick tock, tock tick’. Then we’d pause, I’d take a deep breath, then share what came up for me in the preceding moments. This process was deeply rooted in the experience I was having in my body and noticing how I was responding physically was really important.
One of the things I loved about this therapeutic approach was that whatever came up was significant — whether that was saying ‘I feel silly’ or another meaningful and connected memory presenting itself, or noticing my body language had changed and working out what that meant. Noting my commentary on the process was just as useful as what turned up when I was doing the process without commentary.
I gained valuable insights into how I talk to myself and where those voices might have come from — often something said to me as a child, interpreted with a child’s understanding and folded into the innermost layers of my awareness. That high-achieving upbringing left me with a harsh inner critic (who’d have thought?) that didn’t accept anything less than perfection: a hazy and unattainable goal that made me feel I was never quite good enough. In therapy, I was able to listen to and understand that voice with someone I trusted and who only offered non-judgemental, unbiased support.
With EMDR we could look at how past events were still impacting my life. The daisy chain links my mind made between various memories could reveal coded messages I’d absorbed over the years — and even though time had moved on, I was still acting according to those messages. For instance, I was seriously ill when I was a teenager and witnessed my close family members also suffering life-changing illnesses or injuries, so the formative years of my adolescence were imprinted with surviving crisis after crisis. I somehow hadn’t realised how much this was still affecting me.
This crisis mindset was one thing that led me to put my own feelings and reaction to events right to the back of the queue, not allowing myself to process stuff or show any emotions that might cause further upset to the people I loved. This continued long after we were all physically well again and persevered into my relationships — including those formed in my twenties. It was automatic for me to hide certain feelings from other people that I had little grasp of myself.
My nervous system tried to protect me by suppressing any strongly negative emotions with a physiological state that my therapist and I came to describe as ‘foggy’ or ‘blankety’ — a complete shutdown which has at times left me feeling paralysed, unable even to get up and do the washing up because of all the swirling anxiety. Added to this, my relationships were often without boundaries. Because I wanted those around me to be happy, I would frequently let people cross lines without even noticing that it impacted on me negatively.
Realising that how you’re feeling in a present situation has as much — or sometimes more — to do with your past has been such an important realisation for me. We joked about it being a superpower but it really is. When you can notice that your reaction to something has events from your past mixed into it you can start to do your detective work on what’s prompting that huge reaction and why. You can notice when younger, unhealed versions of yourself are coming into play, or when that critical voice is making you feel guilt, or shame, or just generally rubbish.
I remember one notable session when we looked at a memory and I’d noticed my body language close off and, trying to work out what was going on I realised, ‘I think I feel… cross! Aha! I’m ANGRY!’ which I hadn’t allowed myself to express in a very long, long time. With EMDR we were able to uncover my previously locked up emotions around traumatic events, then let them have their life in a safe space and move on. This isn’t something I’m sure I’d have been able to achieve with other forms of therapy.
After a year of meeting my therapist regularly online and processing all this old stuff, I’m making choices that keep me feeling stable and supported in my life. I surround myself with people who validate my feelings and listen to me, which helps me do this for myself. I can notice when that ‘blankety’ sensation is coming in and my system is giving me signals that there’s something going on that I need to give some loving attention to instead of locking away. I know when a boundary is being crossed and can respectfully but assertively tell people when they’re crossing it.
It's a work in progress. I’m still learning how to deal with difficult situations — as we all are and will have to — but I have a toolkit now to help me do that effectively, compassionately and while continuing to look after myself. I try to let my emotions pass through me and can reflect on the healthiest course of action and communicate my needs instead of letting it all build up. I haven’t had a panic attack in a long time.
Therapy has, quite simply, changed my life (I said this in my last session slightly bashfully, but it’s true). I would — and do — tell anyone considering therapy that it will be the best money you will ever spend.
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