Monday, 4 April 2016

Why I Believe in Pure Relaxation as an Approach to Mental Hygiene

A few times every year, I attend Mind, Body and Spirit events in order to promote my counselling practice and to promote the Inner Calm stress management courses and relaxation workshops. In doing this, I attempt to describe as succinctly as possible what it is I offer, bringing with it a huge internal conflict for me as, on the one hand, I am there somewhat in the role of a salesman but at the same time desperate to be an honest, authentic and compassionate helper. It helps me to remember why I started on this journey in the first place.

I trained as an integrative counsellor as a way of being able to help others that might go through some of my own, at times, very painful experiences, particularly workplace stress and depression. For me, these are not abstract concepts learned from text books but real lived experiences and ever present realities.

For me, things started to go really badly in around 2000 while working for a technology company in Cambridge. A few years previously, my son had undergone a stem cell transplant to treat Hodgkin's disease and by this time I recovered reasonably well from that stress and settled back into my working routine.

Despite a flawless work attendance record, having to be signed off sick by my GP and admitting it was for depression was the worst move I could possibly have made. Immediately, my absence became a disciplinary issue, and I mean immediately. As soon as they possibly could they made sure that I was among those made redundant. Redundancy isn't personal is it? It is when at the same time they are recruiting somebody else to replace you!

Perhaps at times I behaved unwisely being confronted by a particularly unhelpful colleague who himself was not coping well with the stress he was under. The company could have helped if they had chosen but the line managers chose to get rid of us both as quickly as possible, to bury the problem instead of offering any help whatsoever. Rather than retaining, I would like to think, two very talented colleagues, they simply discarded us both.

Fast forward to 2009, while completing my counselling degree, I was also working full time for a mobile telephony test equipment company. Although I had taken a lot on and at times it could be stressful fitting in work, study and placements, I actually got a real buzz from it all. So work was hard but OK, study was hard but OK, and keeping up with my placement was OK. There were times at work when it was necessary to hide some pretty awful depressive episodes, but mostly I managed, mainly through the supported of my wife and family. My line manager had absolutely no idea how bad things were for me until I had a sudden break down.

My mother had became ill and it fell to me, through geography, to be the member of the family to support her with journeys to Kings Hospital in London for investigations and treatment. As far as I was aware, I was still coping OK and then in the early hours of one morning I had a seizure and ended up in A and E. My driving license was revoked for several months and I was unable to travel to work. An MRI scan showed that I had experienced some bleeding on the brain and an occupational therapist recommended a phased return to work. Despite, this one of the kinder HR officers there advised me that the senior management would rather see the back of me and advised me to take “redundancy”. Another job gone!

As far as I can tell from clients I work with now, nothing has changed in the workplace. To this day, so many employers ignore mental health. I use the word ignore as it suits them to close off to the issue of stress in the workplace, to sweep it under the carpet. Sure, it is not possible to run a successful company without some degree of stress being present but it's what you do with it that counts. It's how you treat those that don't cope well all of the time. It's hard enough keeping up with working and domestic responsibilities when time are good, but at times one more challenge is one too many. How about helping your staff member through the tough times because if you do you might have a loyal committed employee for life. Giving staff the opportunity to share their problems with an external impartial helper can and often does help to reduce the stress they are feeling.

Since finally graduating in 2010, I have continued to study and develop my counselling approaches and have, along with my wife qualified as a mindfulness trainer. Our own awareness of mindfulness goes back to the early 90s when our son was so gravely ill and we have continued to grow our mindfulness skills an use them to teach others what we found out the hard way.

Stress and depression don't only effect the individual but everyone around them. It puts relationships under immense stress, can lead to dependence on alcohol or prescription drugs, and undermines the ability to be a reliable work colleague. I'm sure there were times that I could be a nightmare to be around at home. Mindfulness is key in enabling you to live with mental health challenges but it is compassion that gives you the wisdom to understand that it does not make you indestructible.

It is difficult to afford individual counselling for many people and so workshops and courses offer a lower cost alternative that will help most people. Now, along with my counselling work, myself and my wife run mindfulness workshops and courses designed to help people discover ways to take time out and to cope with stress.

Our Pure Relaxation workshops are designed as self contained sessions that individuals can attend as little or as often as they like. Each session looks at a different topic connected to mindfulness. We teach simple meditation, use guided visualisation and progressive relaxation, and encourage you to explore ways of growing self compassion. I firmly believe that self compassion is totally essential for coping with stress, reducing anxiety and for managing depression. The aim is to build resilience to support a more robust approach to self care when faced any challenges that might occur in the future.

We take regular baths, clean out teeth and change our clothes in order to maintain our physical hygiene, to keep ourselves healthy. What if we try a similar approach to our mental hygiene? Our pure relaxation workshops are designed to develop self compassion and regular mindfulness practice as ways of maintaining good mental hygiene.

Our next Pure Relaxation workshops start on Saturday 9th April at 10am at the Norwich Wellbeing Centre, near Chapelfield Gardens. Why not give it a try. We invite you to pay what you think it is worth. For more information please email me on or visit  

Saturday, 20 February 2016

Anxiety, Mindfulness and Your Personal Brand

This article talks about how examining and redefining our personal brand can help us to overcome existential anxiety and learn to live in better harmony with ourselves and others.

Central to the Inner Calm SMART programme's approach to stress and anxiety management is the understanding of self beliefs and their role in maintaining us in a place of dis-ease and distress. In CBT we talk about Negative Automatic Thoughts (NATs) and the core beliefs that lie behind them. Core beliefs are often negative but even when positive can be unrealistic and inauthentic thus leading to disillusion when our beliefs are out of step with our lived experience.

Starting from a place of compassion for ourselves and others, the SMART course encourages us to approach our core beliefs with kindness and understanding; right or wrong, we believe what we believe about ourselves for a reason and to overcome them we need to develop a kinder observer self willing to build self acceptance. We learn to live in the moment and observe our emotions and sensations without judging them and allowing change to happen naturally. From this foundation, the course goes on to help us look at our beliefs from a cognitive standpoint using the concept of branding.

Branding is most commonly associated with companies and organisations who convey their identity to the world along with their values, products or missions. Organisations make huge investments in money, time and resources to develop their brands, and so central are they to their success protect them fiercely. Think of Apple with their unmistakable logo and technology designs, a brand that communicates uncompromising product design and a premium price tag to many, or capitalism and excessive profit to others; think of Google with a brand name that has been almost universally adopted as a verb, meaning to search the internet.

Brands are crucial to non-commercial organisations as well. For example, Mind in the UK are recognised as an organisation with a mission to support and advocate for people with mental illness; or the NHS, our medical service under the common shared ownership of every UK tax payer, or Greenpeace and their advocacy and activism on global environmental issues. All of the values they represent are expressed in their logos and the list is endless. A brand can have also negative connotations. Think how damaging the Deepwater Horizon oil spillage in the Gulf of Mexico has been to BP, particularly in the United States.

The SMART programme explores the use of branding, bringing the concept to our personal space. We all brand ourselves subconsciously by the clothes we wear, by our hairstyles, by our profession or job, or by our associations. Now more than ever we also brand ourselves publicly on social media on our Facebook page or Twitter feed and we attract admirers or detractors in doing so, just as we sometimes do at home or in the workplace
Now think of a Fireman. What properties would you associate with that brand? The first thing that occurs to me is that the label should be Firefighter as it excludes women. Perhaps the brand would include:
  • Brave
  • Strong
  • Professional
  • Dependable
  • ???
Exploring our personal brand is a useful way of highlighting the mismatch between who we want to think we should be and who we think we really are. Another way of looking at it is that the difference between these two viewpoints is what often results in negative self image, low self esteem and existential anxiety. It can also be confusing for those we are close to if we are unclear about our brand, resulting in a sense that we are being artificial and inauthentic or that we are unpredictable. With a clearer sense of our brand, or our identity, we can become more comfortable in our own skin and convey a clearer sense of who we really are which might initially be greeted with confusion but, hopefully, eventually, greeted with respect and admiration. The starting place for this process begins with ourselves.

Having examined and discovered the often hidden nature of our own individual brand, the SMART course then goes on to help us create and grow healthier personal brand by using visualisation and other techniques.

The SMART programme is a 6 week course that teaches you to create a more positive relationship with yourself. Using mindfulness, meditation and visualisation it connects with your real-world existence where family and work responsibilities and pressures are ever present. You will learn how anxiety is just as much a physical as an emotional condition and how to create a more harmonious mind-body connection. You will explore your own relationship with anxiety and how anxiety can represent a low-level nagging fear, or sometimes terror, which can sometimes give rise to outbursts of anger.

Mindfulness teaches us to enter a being mode in which we live in the present. This does not suggest shrinking away from responsibilities or ambition but teaches us to enjoy this moment, which makes us more effective and can help us achieve while at the same time enjoying this moment and this task. We learn to be mindful by using breathing, meditation and visualisation, but this is only the start. Can we be mindful in a meeting or when with the family? Can we be present in this moment time, in this place, and with these people? Can we look on ourselves and others with compassion?

Our next SMART programme in will start in early to mid June 2016 at the Norwich Wellbeing Centre of Friday evenings between 7 and 9pm. The course is limited to a maximum of 12 people. The normal cost of the course is £180 but there is a £30 discount available for early bookings. 

If 6 weeks is too much to commit to, then keep you eyes out for our 1 day workshops. Details will be announced on our Facebook page nearer the time.

For more information about our next Stress Management And Relaxation course in June or our 1 day workshops, please visit our website: 
or our Facebook page:

Monday, 25 January 2016

Learning to be a Child Again

Any sports person or athlete would know that to compete successfully, you must train continuously both in order to improve fitness and to perfect skills. In sport you discover a talent, it is nurtured as you grow up, you train, you compete, you succeed and know that whatever happens you will be the best you can be. After retirement it is good to keep up some level of training, both for your physical and emotional health. It might also be that your emotional health can be maintained by coaching the next generation.

What about those of us that have never been remotely sporty? It seems to me that where as sports people and young musicians work with a natural talent and train to perfect it as they mature, whereas many of us travel in the opposite direction, at least emotionally. Children, it seems, are born with an innate ability to be OK so that provided they have nourishment, shelter and love, they can emotionally flourish.

For a child, life is simple and the world of imagination and play provide outlets for discovery, for practicing emotional skills and the discovery of healthy emotional living. Only as we grow older do relationships become more tricky as social pressures are placed on us, albeit mostly well meaning, by parents, teachers and friends. This is particularly true when we reach our teenage years. It seems that many of our life transitions present us with emotional challenges, whether it is leaving home, entering or leaving relationships, becoming a parent, redundancy, retirement, children leaving home … The list is endless.

In the same way that keeping physically fit helps to reduce the risk of illness or helps us enjoy an active physical life, there is growing evidence that some form of “emotional keep fit” could help us to enjoy better emotional health, particularly through these transitions. It could help us stave off depression or anxiety, or may help in our relationships. A bold claim but let's think about this for a moment.

Our first relationship is with ourselves with parental relationships providing the prototype for each person's unique internal model of the world. This model then goes on to determine our ability to trust, our ability to love and to be loved, how we relate to the world. It is what we use to construct our sense of self. If our parents help us to create a positive sense of self, it remains with us for life and helps us to face up to and survive the many challenges we will face through life. This is not to say that our emotional health depends on perfect parenting but, as Eric Burn pointed out, with good enough parenting we create positive life scripts and these set us on the path to an emotionally healthy path.

In reality, many of us have flawed internal models where we find the world more scary than it sometimes should be giving rise a general feelings of anxiety or powerlessness. Depression, for example, is widely regarded in psychoanalytical to arise from anger against the self and which may well have its roots in poor self image.

In counselling, a common first objective is to create a “reparative” relationship with the client to enable them to build a more positive self image. In this style of relating the client is not judged and learns not to be their own worst critic. Building a positive relationship with ourself provides the foundation for our relationships with others, with our loved ones, and with our colleagues. Not everyone needs counselling and for most of us, learning to be mindful can help us to nurture kindness towards ourselves, more create a more positive self image and to realise just how amazing our internal working model can be in guiding us through the joys and perils of life.

Think of mindfulness as a kind of emotional keep fit where you develop expert skills and being in the moment, each moment, without judging either yourself or others, and without judging the moment. We can learn to be mindful by using meditation to develop the skills of the internal observer, the part of us that can see each unique moment with wonder. However, mindfulness is not just meditation but takes the learned skill into our everyday existence so that, for example, you might find joy in the crunch of frost beneath you feet in the winter, or being fully present in a conversation with a child.

In a way, it is an attempt to return to a more child-like curiosity with the world, the curiosity that is lost as we grow older and more cynical with the world and, worst of all, with ourselves and our loved ones.

To learn more about counselling or mindfulness, please visit my website.

Monday, 14 December 2015

A New Year, A New More Mindful You?

As we look to begin a new year, it is common for us to take stock, to reflect on our achievements during the year just past and to start to plan for the new year. You may have decided that you need to take more exercise, to lose a little weight, or to train for a better job, but how many of us consider the possibility of actively improving our emotional fitness. If you have been becoming more stressed, or if your relationships are not as harmonious as you would like, or if you are burdened with low self-esteem or doubts that are holding you back.

These are often symptoms that you have an internalised self-critic at work and signs that you need to take care of your emotional wellbeing and develop a more compassionate self. Self compassion is the very opposite of self pity in that it encourages you to develop a caring but wiser approach to managing difficult emotions so that rather than using self-sabotaging behaviours such as overeating to cope you take an active but kind interest in your own emotional wellbeing. You can improve your fitness through exercise and diet, you can improve your intellect through education and skills training but to improve your emotional wellbeing you need something quite different. That something may well be mindfulness training.

In February, we are holding our next Stress Management And Relaxation Techniques (SMART) programme at the Norwich Wellbeing Centre, a 6 week course that teaches you to create a more positive relationship with yourself. Using mindfulness, meditation and visualisation it connects your emotional wellbeing with your real-world existence where family and work responsibilities and pressures are ever present. You will learn how anxiety is just as much a physical as an emotional condition and how to create a more harmonious mind-body connection. You will explore your own relationship with anxiety and how anxiety can represent a low-level nagging fear, or sometimes terror, which can sometimes give rise to outbursts of anger.
You will learn how to treat yourself with compassion and to extend your feelings of compassion to those you love. In this way you will learn to treat yourself more kindly but without destructive self-pity.

The wide adoption of mindfulness for emotional wellbeing stems from the power that mindfulness has in teaching us to live in the present; to learn to adopt “being mode” rather than “doing mode”. In western culture we tend to default to living in doing mode in which we are consumed by the need to plan, to achieve and to acquire. Often this leads a disconnect in what we become in order to live and what we would like to be which in turn leads to emotional distress and the symptoms of stress.

Mindfulness teaches us to enter being mode in which we live in the present. This does not suggest shrinking away from responsibilities or ambition but teaches us to enjoy this moment, which makes us more effective and can help us achieve while at the same time enjoying this moment and this task. We learn to be mindful by using breathing, meditation and visualisation, but this is only the start. Can we be mindful in a meeting or when with the family? Can we present in this moment time and in this place with these people? Can we look on ourselves and others with compassion?

For more information about the Stress Management And Relaxation course, please visits The course is limited to a maximum of 12 people. The normal cost of the course is £180 but there is a £30 discount for places booked by the 8th January and a further £30 discount for liking the the Inner Calm Facebook page. At £120, perhaps a place on the course would make a fantastic Christmas gift.   

Sunday, 13 September 2015

Stress Management And Relaxation Techniques Course Coming to Norwich

Over the course of the last year or so I have been focusing on writing and preparing a wellbeing course based on mindfulness concepts. Mindfulness is recognised by NICE as an affective treatment for depression and anxiety and it is widely used along with CBT by the NHS Wellbeing Service who also offer mindfulness-based wellbeing classes. However, the group sizes tend to be large and the focus tends to be on problems rather than exploring solutions, limited to meditation rather than on self-exploration and self-development. The goals I set myself in creating the course, therefore, were to teach mindfulness in a way that would connect with real people in the real world, that would encourage self-development, and to teach only to small groups where each individual would receive an adequate level of attention.

Developing the programme needed extensive research and I also took the time to take in a wellbeing trainer training course with the SMART Foundation ( to develop the skills needed to teach the course. In October, I present a six-week wellbeing course with the title Stress Management And Relaxation Techniques (SMART).

I couldn't help but to be struck by this use of the SMART acronym which I am more familiar with as a self-improvement tool from the business sector and felt less than comfortable about using it in the title of a wellbeing course. But, the more I thought about what I had set out to create in the course, the more SMART made sense as a way to help professionals connect with mindfulness.


The Specific goal aims to create a better sense of wellbeing in the attendees and teach them ways to reduce and cope with Stress, to Manage the Stress. Along with stress and anxiety individuals will often experience depression which reduces effectiveness at work and undermines relationships. Mindfulness teaches us how to actively regulate our physical hormonal states and so manage our emotions.


The Measurable goal enables the attendees to notice over time reduced symptoms of Stress. Perhaps they might sleep better, find less need for alcohol, and enjoy more harmonious relationships with friends, colleagues and loved ones. They might even experience clearer thinking which will become obvious as life goals feel easier to achieve.


The Achievable goal is addressed in that the course focuses on an honest self exploration of who we wish to believe we are versus what the world perceives us to be. This can be very challenging but by taking a little time out, by exploring and developing our personal “brand” we bring these two viewpoints closer together.


The goal of being Relevant is met by relating the programme to the real-world experience of each individual. The title of Jon Kabat-Zin's book sums this up perfectly. “Wherever We Go, There We Are”. Withdrawing from relationships or work does not make anxiety and stress go away as it will always follow us. So, the course does not advocate withdrawing from the world or relationships but encourages finding ways to move towards them by escaping the habitual negative messages we send to ourselves or receive from others. By learning to look upon yourself and others with compassion you learn to take responsibility for your own emotions and let those that need to take responsibility for theirs.


The goal of being Time-bound is met by staging the course over 6 weeks during which attendees will take away exercises in meditation and visualisation, develop the ability to be in the present moment, and will develop a personal "brand" which will remain with them always.

About the Course

The course commences at 6:30 on Friday 23rd October for 6 weeks at the Norwich Wellbeing Centre. Yes, on Friday! But this enables attendees to find some time over the weekend to consolidate their learning. It helps to have an open mind when attending the course but I choose not to ignore those who are more sceptical? What I wanted to create was something that addressed real-world problems for those that work hard, have responsibilities that cannot be ignored, or those who want to find ways to cope with the pressures of life.

For more information about the Stress Management And Relaxation Techniques course, please visits The course is limited to a maximum of 12 people and there is a substantial discount for early booking.  

Monday, 17 September 2012

Mindfulness in Counselling

Mindfulness is becoming increasingly important as a tool in counselling and features as a central feature of Mindful CBT, but what is mindfulness and how does it help in counselling. This article hopefully provides some answers.

Mindfulness stems from ancient Buddha practice and has profound relevance for our present-day lives. This relevance has nothing to do with Buddha per se or with becoming a Buddhist, but has everything to do with waking up to and living with harmony with the world. It has to do with examining who we are, with questioning our view of the world and our place in it, and cultivating some appreciation for the fullness of each moment we are alive. Most of all, it has to do with being in touch. (Kabat-Zinn, 2004)

The value of incorporating mindfulness into our lives is that it has the potential to teach us be aware, in the moment, of our thoughts and sensations without judgement. There are considered to be two main modes of mind:
  • Doing mode
    A goal-oriented state. Often gives rises to a sense of discrepancy between how things are versus how the mind wishes things to be. If the mind continuously dwells on discrepancies, then negative feelings and emotions arise leading to habitual patterns of the mind designed to close that gap.
  • Being Mode
    Not focused on achieving specific goals but, instead, on accepting what is without any immediate pressure to change. The mind processes from moment to moment, enabling the person to be completely engaged in the present.
In doing mode, goals are used to ensure good or bad feelings continue, whereas in being mode thoughts and feelings are viewed simply as events that arise in the mind, become objects of awareness, and then are allowed to pass from the mind.

Although meditation and guided visualization are examples mindfulness practice (Kabat-Zinn, 2001), mindfulness is not by definition meditation and this is an important insight for those whom meditation is a new experience (Wellings & McCormick, 2000). One seemingly unlikely example of mindful functioning I like to use is that of Formula 1 racing drivers who are able to observe and respond to events, bodily sensation and their existence in their environment with microsecond resolution by being mindfully present in the the process. Paradoxically, while the aim of the driver is to be first over the finish line to be greeted by the chequered flag, he can only do this by experiencing at the deepest level every turn, straight line and pit stop and being mindfully present in every millisecond.

Mindfulness and counselling

The skills we seek to promote in counselling are intended to avoid rumination about events and feelings that would tend to reinforce depression or anxiety. Instead, we seek to create a curiosity and awareness of the processes and how we experience them, allowing the client to focus less on reacting to stimuli and more on accepting and observing them without judgment.

A key feature of mindfulness is that it changes our relationship with our internal experiences. Although anxiety prompts us to turn away from uncomfortable or painful experiences, mindfulness allows us to approach them. Rather than judging some internal experiences to be acceptable and others to be unacceptable or loathsome, mindfulness involves bringing curiosity and compassion to all or our experiences. (Susan M Orsillo, 2011).

Again, paradoxically, by not being focussed on the outcome of forcing changes to behaviour, mindfulness encourages us to observe without judgement changes that occur through the practice mindfulness. In this way it is a powerful aid to developing the self-observer who is able to fully participate in, for example, the development of a formulation rather than to be the recipient of an expert diagnosis.

Using mindfulness with clients

My inclination in using mindfulness with any client is introduce it at a cognitive level. In this way is linked with the autonomic arousal model that illustrates how mental states and physical states are intimately linked. Of particular interest is the effect of raised levels of cortisol in the brain (Gerhardt, 2004) and in maintaining depression or anxiety (Greenfield, 2002). To counter this I enjoy sharing with clients the concept of mental strawberries which promote endorphins (Bloom, 2001) through being mindfully present during all moments in life.

One client who benefitted from this approach was a young woman who suffered with depression and low self esteem. Over a number of sessions we worked with a graphical representation of her significant relationships in which she used symbols to represent significant others. She elaborate symbols for her mother,  father, and siblings and her husband. She depicted herself as a plain unadorned letter D.

We worked a visualization for which we developed the image of a large shallow and rock strewn Canadian stream with sun glinting off the surface rapidly flowing water, “Like diamonds”. This was the symbol she chose to adopt to represent herself. The effect of this was to allow her to observe herself with much more kindness than before and free herself from a overwhelmingly powerful inner critic.

Tuesday, 28 August 2012

CBT is Not the Only Talking Therapy: A point of view

It's tough finding a counsellor that suits every individual and any one counsellor will not suit every client. Also, the increasing medicalisation of mild to moderate mental distress does not always help the individual to get better.  This is why properly qualified independent counsellors need to be allowed to offer a range of alternatives.

Wide spread ignorance in general practise leads to the belief that CBT is the only model of talking therapy that works and that it must be administered only by the NHS. As powerful as CBT is, the widespread dismissal of psychoanalytic theory by many of its practitioners means that it does not always provide lasting relief from emotional distress, especially with the strict rationing number of sessions allowed. It is effective for rapid symptom relief and does work over the long term for many, but not all. The medical model of "treatment" means that the client is seen as a "patient" with a set of "symptoms", and the client is reduced to a set of problems and any failure in the client to improve can be seen as a failure in the commitment of the client.

It is interesting that in many areas of the country that those providing treatment for mental illness under the IAPT (Improved Access to Psychological Therapies) schemes specifically exclude those with training in counselling in favour of those more accepting of a strict medical model. They also make high demands on their practitioners in terms of numbers of clients they must see. This can often result as the patient being seen in terms of outcomes that favour, or not, the practitioner and the genuine relationship between them becomes strained.

By contrast, integrative counselling is founded on the intersubjective relationship between the client and counsellor and offers a talking therapy that truly respects the individuality of the client. It provides an holistic approach to counselling that embracing humanistic, psychoanalytical, and cognitive psychological theories and encourages a detailed exploration of phenomena and from this exploration the meaning underlying a client's distress. Any development of negative regard by the client of the counsellor are seen as just one phenomenon which can usefully be explored to reveal the underlying meaning and how this meaning is played out in the present, often to the detriment of the client's relationships.

There are many well regarded colleges and institutions that offer well-founded training to degree level and beyond, ensuring that their graduates are fit to practise as counsellors and psychotherapists.  With advent of the voluntary regulation by the Professional Standards Authority (PSA) for Health and Social Care, GPs and potential clients can have confidence that those included in the approved registers of accredited counsellors maintained by the BACP, UKCP and other ethical bodies have proper training and experience and are subject to a complaints procedure designed to protect the client.

CBT has many virtues and is a model I use in my own practise when requested, but it is not the only talking therapy. Let's please keep it that way.