Search
  • Helen Whitehead M.C., R.C.C.

Updated: Aug 21, 2020


Do you get anxious about social activities? Meeting certain people? Work events? Maybe even leaving the house? Anxiety is an important part of life, without it we wouldn’t be able to survive and yet when anxiety becomes a problem it can be devastating.


Let’s take a look at what can happen. For many of us, we feel anxiety about something that is perhaps a little outside of our comfort zone, like an exam or a party and that’s OK, we handle it, we maybe prepare a little more but it doesn’t actually stop us from doing whatever it is. Also in some circumstances our anxiety will fire up to warn us about something that could be harmful to us, after all, avoiding stimuli that can be dangerous is a vital survival strategy, so feeling anxious about walking down a dark street late at night is a probably a good thing right? But what can happen for some folk, especially people who have experienced trauma in the past, anxiety can take hold and every street can start to feel unsafe.

Woman sitting on window sill, trapped by her anxiety

Early experiences that caused us distress or hurt often put our brain on a higher alert for danger, for situations, feelings, or experiences that could cause us pain or be harmful. This is when we can get stuck in a loop. It goes something like this: feel anxiety - try to push it away - feel distress - avoid thing causing anxiety - feel relief - teach brain that avoidance feels good – feel anxiety – try to push it away - feel distress - avoid – and it goes on and on and on. It can get to a point where anxiety has caused our world to get really really small because that’s the only size that feels safe.


Internal Family Systems (IFS) has a really neat counselling approach toward anxiety and trauma. IFS was first introduced by Richard Schwartz and it’s based upon the notion that we all have these different inner parts that have helped us stay safe over the years. So you might have an anxiety part, an inner critic part, a depressive part, an angry part – they all have jobs to do and they all do their jobs well because they are worried about us getting hurt. This works with anxiety because if you are avoiding being out in the world then you are less likely to be hurt or in danger. Same with depression, if you are feeling so lethargic, down, unmotivated that you can barely leave the house, then boom – kept you safe. These parts of ourselves are often from childhood and they don’t realize that we are grown up, we are strong, we are resilient, and we are able to keep ourselves safe, there’s just a disconnect between what our brain (or the child parts of ourselves) thinks is necessary and what we’re actually capable of.


So what do we do? Well traditional anxiety relief therapy might tell you to find ways to distract yourself to try and bring this anxiety under control. Well newsflash, you can’t control anxiety any more than you can tell yourself to stop being depressed. What the IFS approach would suggest, is that we actually start to connect with this part of ourselves and instead of pushing it away and having it push back we actually bring it closer. We ask that part what its job is, how long has it been around for and what the part is scared might happen if it wasn’t doing its job. We thank it for keeping us safe. Through doing this you will find out what your anxiety triggers are and how to speak to that anxiety part to calm it down – often in the same way you might speak to a child who is distressed or scared. Many counsellors, myself included, are influenced by the Internal Family Systems approach. It is incredibly gentle, compassionate, trauma informed, understanding and most importantly, effective. You can watch a short video about the IFS approach to anxiety here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JQ-8LhokIro


Compassion is critical when working with our anxiety part, if we don’t take the time to get to know it and understand it then it’s not going to stop doing its job because, well, it works. You’re alive! You survived! Only, we want and deserve a little more than survival.

Just try the basic steps for yourself, check in with your anxiety part, ask it how long it has been around for, what its job is, and what would happen if it wasn’t there. Start to feel compassion for that part and connected to it, rather than feeling that you’re pushing it away and maybe ask it just to take a step back for a day and notice what happens for you. If you have a therapist, ask them about the Internal Family Systems approach. If you have any questions about counselling or anything discussed in this post please get in touch. Email me at info@helenwhitehead.ca

Thanks for reading :)

Helen Whitehead

Registered Clinical Counsellor

North Vancouver, BC


#anxietyrelief #internalfamilysystems #anxiety #trauma

  • Helen Whitehead M.C., R.C.C.

Updated: Aug 13, 2020

Have you ever been told you have control issues? Or maybe been called a “control freak”? Hmm doesn’t feel good does it? Maybe you need to have things a certain way in your home, or stick to a certain schedule, or maybe you get frustrated when other people in your life, at home, or at work, don’t do things the way you think they should be done – you either keep biting your tongue or you get accused of being a nag. Maybe this sounds familiar, if not about yourself, then perhaps someone else in your life.


Control issues are also involved in abusive relationships, disordered eating, substance use and compulsive behaviours. This is the more serious end of the control spectrum but it’s important to mention nonetheless. For those on the less serious end of the spectrum, controlling behaviour can still cause distress, feelings of loneliness, conflict in relationships and avoidable nervous system activation.

Here's the thing, having, or constantly trying to have control over our lives and the lives of those around us, is just a tactic to feel safe and protected.

Just read that again, yes, control is just a maladaptive strategy to feel safe. It’s usually not because people actually think their way is the better way, their way is just safer for them. That control part of us is just trying to create less chance of any surprises happening, because for our emotional brain, our threat detection system, surprises can mean danger. Perhaps in the past something negative has happened that wasn’t part of “the plan” so your brain is desperately trying to stick to “the plan” to avoid that happening again. This is why some people who have experienced abuse, hurt, and helplessness in the past, find themselves needing to control everything they can in their present. It's anxiety about change.

Man needing counselling with control issues holding a puppet

The trouble is, when we exert control on our environment or on other people’s – we never heal, we get short term relief and probably don’t feel great afterwards. After all, it’s exhausting trying to get life to stick to the script and honestly, many of life's great experiences can happen off-script. By controlling everything, we never give ourselves the chance to be the real us - our true selves - and we never grow. The control part of us isn’t really us, it’s just a part of us that has adapted because of our history. (If you’d like to read more about parts work and Internal Family Systems - it’s a fascinating counselling approach - click here: (www.psychologytoday.com/ca/therapy-types/internal-family-systems-therapy)


You might be reading this and saying hey but wait I only control things because I know what I like and I know how I like things done, I’m just setting good boundaries! However, knowing what you like and where you like everything to be is great, but what isn’t great is if you are one of the people whose nervous systems get activated when things don’t go to plan and stress hormones pump through your body as if there is a threat to your safety and it's hard to move forward without constantly thinking about whatever has happened. See how you feel today when you don’t control something in your environment, are you OK with it, or is it really uncomfortable? If it's uncomfortable for you then perhaps you'd like to see if there's another way.


If this speaks to you, try today to pay attention to when your control part is activated. Notice it, smile, and maybe even have a dialogue with it, ask it what will happen if you don't act, let it know you’re aware of what’s happening. Starting small, try to relinquish a little bit of control and just notice how it feels. Maybe accept that your coffee isn’t your usual type, or use a pen all day you don't usually use, perhaps stop yourself correcting someone, or leave that backpack on the floor where someone threw it, or turn a picture on the wall so it’s a little crooked and just try and sit with it for a day. Allow your environment to be not quite right and just breathe into the discomfort that follows. Starting small is the key. Start to feel the freedom of not needing to control everything to feel safe. If you have any questions about this or any other aspect of counselling please get in touch by emailing info@helenwhitehead.ca

Thanks for reading :)

Helen Whitehead

#controlissues #internalfamilysystems #partswork #traumarecovery

  • Helen Whitehead M.C., R.C.C.

Updated: Sep 14, 2020

Disenfranchised grief is a term that has particular relevance during the COVID-19 pandemic, but it also applies in many other situations. Disenfranchised grief occurs when a person or pet has died and there is some type of invalidation of the loss. I’ll give you a few examples:

  • A death occurs and there is social stigma around it (such as a suicide or an overdose death, or the death of person who had perhaps been violent or involved in criminality) leading to people being less comfortable discussing their grief and processing the loss. There can be a heavy burden of shame that makes the grief somehow unspeakable.

  • Pet loss. There is a crushing universality to the grief that accompanies the loss of a partner or friend; however, for pet owners there is additional stress which can arise from the death itself (often euthanasia) and from the difficult grieving process. In many cases, this grief feels equal to losing a family member or friend and yet for some people (particularly non-pet owners) there can be diminished sympathy and understanding about the devastating impact of losing a pet.

  • A loss where there is an emotional or physical separation, so perhaps a divorced partner or a family member with whom there was severe conflict. Or perhaps a family member that had moved abroad and closeness had diminished.

  • A loss where the person grieving is excluded from the rituals associated with the death. This can happen when a person was having an unknown relationship such as an affair, or when a person’s true identity was kept secret (such as with an LGBTQ2 person), or right now when due to physical distancing the usual gatherings to mourn together and celebrate a person’s life aren't possible or have moved online.


A person suffering from grief and loss with head in hands

Disenfranchised grief, when unsupported, can lead to a block of the normative grief process and lack of ability to find meaning in the person's death, so in effect the grief is left suspended. Disenfranchised grief contributes to a complex mourning experience and can lead to what is known as complicated grief, when the severity of the grief continues and there is little or no recovery from it.


So how can grief counselling help?


Most importantly, it provides a space to talk about the difficult or challenging aspects of the loss and to share the love you had for the animal or person. I welcome clients to bring in photographs or personal items as this can be healing and an important step in that processing that has to take place. For some people letter writing can be helpful, especially if there were unsaid or unresolved issues in the relationship. You and your therapist can also brainstorm ways that you can be involved in a ritual of some kind, a personal and beautiful goodbye. It is also really helpful to have conversations around ways you can stay connected to the person you have lost. This approach, known as continuing bonds, allows the griever to become fully adjusted to life without the person or animal that has died, but at the same time find enduring ways of remaining connected to them. It can also be helpful to talk to your counsellor about your own beliefs around death and dying, as loss can often trigger unresolved fears around this unavoidable aspect of life.


Grief is universal, there is no avoiding it; however, with grief there is no such thing as normal. The grief you encounter will be every bit as unique as the person or animal you have lost and profound grief is a reflection of profound love.

Please contact me if you would like to book a session to discuss a loss that you are facing or have faced in the past: info@helenwhitehead.ca Here is a link to my grief counselling services page: https://www.helenwhitehead.ca/grief-counselling


Helen Whitehead

Registered Clinical Counsellor

North Vancouver


I am including some resources in the Lower Mainland for anyone affected by grief who may not be able to access counselling:

BC Bereavement HelpLine: 604-738-9950

www.bcbereavementhelpline.com

Lower Mainland Grief Recovery Society: 604-696-1060

www.lmgr.ca

#grief #loss #DeathAndDying #complicatedgrief #petloss

thoughts from a north vancouver counsellor