Celebs wax hysterical about ‘therapy’ to heal their latest heartbreaks, conquer addictions and resolve family rifts, but for the rest of us, ‘seeing a shrink’ is more hush-hush. Linda Smith sets aside stigma and discovers the wonders of hired help for the head

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Photolibrary
Photolibrary

 

With a new year stretching out in front of you, and the dread of falling into the same-old, same-old – too much work, not enough play or still not being motivated to go to the gym – you’re probably considering counselling. Or not. Perhaps a psychiatrist sounds more fitting. But it’s doubtful. A hypnotherapist might just get a moment’s contemplation – after all, that McKenna bloke blew any stigma out of the water, right?


The unfortunate truth is we tend to believe therapy is for other people – not for ‘normal people’ like us. Because we’re not ‘nutcases’ (you can say it).


And with names shrouded in acronyms such as CBT, EFT, ACT and NLP, who can blame us for conjuring images of Girl, Interrupted or One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest?


Reality is not nearly so remarkable. While serious mental illnesses such as schizophrenia and bi-polar disorder do demand space in therapists’ diaries, many therapists – the umbrella term for hired help for psychological and emotional challenges – work with people who are simply stressed to the eyeballs, or anxious, or stuck in a cycle of behaviour they’d be better off without.


So we’ll give you a few minutes to get your head around the lingo and see you Tuesday at four?

Stress and Anxiety

Stress and anxiety are two of the main reasons people seek professional help. Melbourne-based psychologist, life coach and counsellor Kathleen Crawford says clients typically fall into two categories – those who suffer a serious psychological condition, and the large proportion she describes as the ‘worried well’, or people who are going through a ‘rough patch’ in their lives and can benefit from short-term therapy.


Many clients come to her feeling stressed about work or home life, are overwhelmed by their busy schedules, are worrying about a specific event or are just worrying in general. Only some have symptoms that interrupt their functioning, such as panic attacks, feeling physically unwell due to anxiety, being overly pedantic or, at the extreme end, have an obsession or compulsion indicative of Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD).

 

And it’s no indictment on character – far from some sort of personal failure, psychological and emotional problems stem from something greater than you, being either inherited genetically, or learned from parents or other environmental contexts.

The good news, Crawford says, is while these conditions can be very distressing, they are usually successfully treated. Crawford, a member of the Australian Psychological Society and the International Society of Hypnosis, tackles anxiety and stress with Cognitive Behaviour Therapy (CBT), which encourages us to challenge the way we think about things, which in turn fosters positive behavioural results.


“Once a person embraces the new style of thinking, where all thoughts are negotiable, then their whole life can change for the better,” she says. “They’re no longer the prisoner of their negative and self-defeating beliefs.”


Not all therapy entails the years of weekly sessions we saw in Good Will Hunting. Some common conditions such as anxiety and stress can be treated with therapies that can be taught by a therapist and applied at home, with the professional able to be phased out.


Some therapists also teach relaxation strategies like breathing techniques and new thinking skills, to instil the ability to return ourselves from the highly alert state symptomatic of panic, to a more relaxed state that, incidentally, is more conducive to performance.


But in dispelling the myth that counselling is for the seriously disordered, Crawford cautions against underestimating the seriousness of conditions such as stress.
“It’s important to nip stress in the bud, as cumulative stress can lead to feelings of anxiety and, perhaps, panic,” Crawford says.


“It’s also important to realise that stress, anxiety and panic can limit a person’s life as they begin to avoid activities which they may have previously enjoyed. Anxiety also has a physical effect on the body, leading to tiredness, sleeplessness, loss of appetite or eating too much, difficulty in concentration, frustration, irritability, absenteeism, and a lack of enjoyment in life.”

Former champion swimmer Susie O’Neill had to overcome anxiety in order to fulfil her potential as an athlete – in the early days she dreaded ever winning in case it meant she had to stand on the dais and be the centre of attention.


Phobias

Phobias, or irrational fears, are common, according to Crawford. And while most sufferers fear things like spiders, rodents, confined spaces and public speaking, there are many weird and wonderful things that trigger fear in people.


Hollywood actresses Jennifer Love Hewitt and Uma Thurman suffer from claustrophobia (a fear of being trapped in small spaces), Jennifer Aniston, Cher and Whoopi Goldberg share a fear of flying, Orlando Bloom is scared of pigs, country singer Lyle Lovett is frightened by cows, and Pamela Anderson fears mirrors. For Johnny Depp, Daniel Radcliffe and Sean ‘Diddy’ Combs , clowns invoke an abnormal level of fear, and Nicole Kidman baulks at butterflies.


Treatments for phobias are as diverse as their manifestations.


“Phobias can be treated similarly to anxiety, but with gradual and gentle exposure coupled with relaxation techniques, so the fear is confronted at the same time as the client is relaxed,” Crawford says. CBT can be used to reduce the irrational thoughts and replace them with more helpful thoughts, while Emotional Freedom Technique (EFT) or Thought Field Therapy (TFT) can also be used. Both EFT and TFT involve tapping on certain acupressure points (in a similar way to acupuncture) to remove the emotional charge and leave clients feeling “more relaxed, in control and accepting of the situation”.


Hobart-based clinical psychologist Harry Stanton says the trick to overcoming phobias is to train yourself to think differently about the thing you fear. Many of Stanton’s clients fear huntsman spiders, so he encourages them to picture a spider and then imagine it wearing a top hat, twirling a cane and singing silly songs – or something equally ridiculous. That way, he says, the spiders become “something to laugh at, not something to be frightened of”.


The same methods can be applied to other fears and phobias – apply it to that workplace bully by imagining a giant wart on their forehead, or try the old naked audience trick to deflate the fear of public speaking. Nothing is too silly, if it works.

Bad habits
Hypnotherapy can be useful for treating anxiety and phobias, but also for helping people kick bad habits like smoking, teeth grinding and nail biting.


“Some people get a bit scared about being hypnotised,” Crawford says. “It seems that they have seen people hypnotised on stage, running around behaving like chickens. You’d be surprised how many people have said this to me, and they are naturally apprehensive about hypnosis.”


But the hypnotherapist says such fears are unfounded.


“There is nothing magical or spooky about clinical hypnosis,” Crawford assures, praising its power to help people overcome depression, performance anxiety, chronic pain and low self-confidence.


Unlike in the movies – you are now seeing a swinging fobwatch – real life hypnotherapy entails the therapist talking to the client to help them relax into what is known as an “altered state of consciousness” or trance. Therapists then use the power of positive imagery to plant suggestions in a client’s mind to help them better cope with the condition they want to treat.


Stanton, a member of the Australian Psychological Society and a fellow of the Australian Society of Hypnosis, regularly uses hypnotherapy to treat clients. He has helped hardcore smokers kick the habit, has helped people lose weight, and has even helped golfers improve their sporting performance by using the technique. But he says that people should only bother having hypnotherapy if they are committed to making changes in their lives.


“It’s no good me telling someone to quit smoking if they don’t really want to quit,” Stanton concedes. “As long as they really want to stop smoking, hypnotherapy will work, but some people want you to force them to do things they don’t want to do…it doesn’t work like that.”

Sadness

Sad events like losing a loved one or being dumped by a partner are tough but inevitable challenges. How we cope depends on myriad factors spanning our resilience, support structures and beliefs about the expression of emotion – while some of us seem to ride the intensity of emotion, others head off on Hollywood-style benders. See Britney’s head-shaving episode or Charlie Sheen’s apparent affection for alcohol.


The key to surviving sad periods is early intervention. Once you recognise the emotion and that you are simply having difficulties coping with a certain state, reach out.  
“Sometimes all a person really wants to do is talk out problems that they’ve got,” says Stanton. “They don’t think they have the answer but as they talk it out they realise that they do have the answer.”


Conversely, problems that may seem to require no more than a friendly ear are also treated by psychiatrists, according to president of The Royal Australian and New Zealand College of Psychiatrists Dr Maria Tomasic. Stress and anxiety are among the mental health issues psychiatrists treat.


In some instances, stress and anxiety are indicative of depression, which may require medication, which can’t be prescribed by a counsellor or psychologist. Psychiatrists are first trained as medical practitioners and are the only mental health practitioners able to prescribe pharmaceuticals.

 

Lack of motivation/life direction
With so many options in every aspect of life, from career to relationships, it can sometimes be hard to know if we’re following the right path. And that uncertainty can equal inertia, where you do nothing for fear of choosing the wrong thing, or sub-optimal performance. Enter the benefits of life coaching, Crawford says.


“A big part of my work is to `coach` a client towards a preferred way of life with positive psychology,” she says, adding that EFT can also help.
Unlike conventional interactions with psychologists and psychiatrists, Crawford says coaching can be done by phone or in person. It is intended for clients who have no major psychological problems, but merely want to function better.


“You can explore exciting possibilities in your workplace, for your health and wellbeing, and for your personal and professional development,” she says.


“Most of us know we are more capable and could perform better than we presently do. However, we may be unable to seek out the knowledge, skills and experience necessary to do this.”

From cringe to cool
Stanton believes therapy has become a lot more socially accepted and people should not be afraid to see a therapist.


“I think people used to be wary, but not now,” he says. “I think people have become a lot more used to the idea… There’s so much on TV about it, so much in women’s magazines, in particular, it’s something that’s accepted now.” Indeed, by inviting cameras into their couch sessions, US celebs Bethenny Frankel and Kourtney Kardashian seem to have turned psychology into a status symbol.


But despite its apparent social acceptability, Crawford says it can be a frightening prospect for people to see a total stranger and talk about their personal problems and suggests that people take the time to find a therapist they are comfortable with. She also issues a reminder that therapy is confidential, respectful and non-judgemental. Dr Tomasic says seeking help is actually a sign of strength, rather than weakness.


“Often, people do not seek help for mental ill-health as some may feel embarrassed, fear stigma or think that their being ill is a sign of personal weakness,” she says.


“But getting help for mental ill health is not a sign of weakness. One in five people suffer from emotional problems sufficiently distressing to justify seeking professional help. Their symptoms can range from relatively mild feelings of depression and anxiety to severe distress and dysfunction which threatens life itself. It is important to find ways of getting help and treatment as soon as possible.”

How many sessions will I need and how much will it cost?
Prices vary greatly, but expect to pay between $150 and $250 for an hour-long session with a therapist. In some circumstances, you may qualify for a rebate on a certain number of sessions through Medicare’s Mental Health Care Plan, for which you need to be referred by your GP. Some therapists do bulk bill, meaning no out of pocket expenses. If money is an issue, it’s worth investigating the various concessions and rebates through both Medicare and your private health insurance provider before starting your search. Your GP is a good place to start sourcing potential therapists.


Depending on the condition or difficulty, people typically need six or more sessions (don’t expect all your problems to be solved in just one session), although the experts say many people make significant progress in just one or two sessions.

 

Therapy 101
Psychotherapy: is a general term referring to any form of therapeutic interaction or treatment contracted between a trained professional and a client or patient, family, couple or group.
Cognitive behaviour therapy (CBT): a type of psychotherapy that helps people to change unhelpful or unhealthy thinking habits, feelings and behaviours. CBT may be used to treat problems including anxiety, depression, low self-esteem, substance abuse and eating disorders.


Emotional freedom Technique (EFT) and Thought Field Therapy (TFT): are gentle, rapid and simple techniques that involve tapping the body’s meridian points (like acupuncture) to relieve emotional distress. You can learn these techniques and do them yourself at home. EFT is used to treat anxiety, trauma, moderate depression, phobias, pain, grief and emotional upsets.


Hypnotherapy: Hypnotherapy involves lulling a person into a relaxed state to ease tension and help with positive reinforcement to change behaviours and ways of thinking. The term effectively means ‘sleep of the nervous system’ and is used to treat phobias and anxiety, and to stamp out bad habits like smoking.


Neuro-linguistic programming (NLP): NLP is a somewhat controversial therapy that explores the relationships between how we think (neuro) and how we communicate (linguistic), and helps change the way we think and act, replacing negative behaviours and habits with positive ones.


Coaching: Able to be done in person or by phone, this type of therapy is said to help people to think more clearly, set important life goals and make better decisions to help them lead healthier, more fulfilled lives. It is not appropriate for serious psychological conditions.

 

Now hiring: handy resources

FINDING A PSYCHOLOGIST
The Australian Psychological Society has a database of psychologists with expertise in particular areas, psychology.org.au. Your local GP can provide you with a referral to a psychologist, psychiatrist or other therapist.


FURTHER READING
• Change your Thinking by Sarah Edelman
• Letting IT go or Taming the Black Dog by Bev Aisbett
• The Stress Factor: a guide to more relaxed living by Dr Harry Stanton