Donna Bottomley is a psychotherapist and writer, based in Wales (ah, Wales! Will I ever see you again?). As part of her psychotherapy practice, Donna runs an online Expressive Writing group, which sounds just perfect. Expressive writing can be effective in reducing anxiety, apprehension, worry and insomnia.
Donna’s book, released in May, has the intriguing title Do I Need to See a Therapist? In these pandemical (yes, I just invented that word) times, I know most of us have been touched in one way or another by worry, sadness, uncertainty and doubt.
Add feelings of fear and isolation, and it’s no wonder we think about seeking help. Read on for Donna’s comments on why she wrote this book, plus a free excerpt.
I can *almost* guarantee (*because nothing is certain, right?) that you’ll find this chapter very helpful.
Welcome to last Word of the Week, Donna!
I’m so pleased to speak with you. Can you tell us about your book?
DONNA: The idea for this book was to pass on my insights from being a therapist and to also mention a particularly helpful technique for managing emotions that has been a game-changer in my practice over the past year.
Making connections and discoveries is what inspires me. I LOVE research and am on a constant quest to understand what makes us feel and behave as we do. Therapy as a field is increasingly looking beyond merely talking about thoughts and instead bringing more of our physical bodily sensations and events happening beneath the ‘hood’ of the brain into therapy. This includes our sensory worlds. These are an important part of our feeling states.
I recharge using the sensory stimulation of listening to music whilst moving; preferably in my car but walking in nature can have a similar effect. I also love the physical act of handwriting and use expressive writing both for myself and in my therapy practice.
I’m also a firm follower of Julia Cameron’s ‘The Morning Pages’.
Oh and I also have a habit of getting lost for hours playing around on Canva!
DO I NEED TO SEE A THERAPIST?
Free Book Extract: Chapter 5
Will Talking about My Feelings Make Them Worse?
And if So, What Can I Do to Make It Easier?
I often hear new clients say that they are worried they will feel worse if they talk about their feelings. This belief that emotions are made worse by talking about them keeps people silent. When we are silent, we cannot process our experiences. If we do not process our felt experiences, then we cannot truly learn enough about our own emotions in order to manage them. You wouldn’t manage a sports team by having no idea of the individual skills and abilities in your players. You’d have no control over how a game would play out if this was the case, and it would feel unpredictable and uncertain. It’s the same with our emotions. By suppressing them and pushing them away, we never get to learn enough about our own processes in order to manage them better. Because we don’t know enough about them, we find them unpredictable and we feel out of control if they become triggered. We don’t want to lose control, so we push them away. This avoidance keeps us fearing them, and the cycle continues.
As humans we have a natural ability to be able to suppress, repress or express. Sometimes we knowingly suppress, sometimes we unknowingly repress. An example of repression is not knowing that something has bothered you until you later talk about it and feel upset, perhaps saying something like ‘I had no idea that bothered me so much’. This is normal, but do we balance out our natural tendencies to suppress, with setting aside time to process? In day-to-day life I don’t believe we do, because we desperately do not want to get upset. But this emotional suppression has a cost. It can make us feel even less in control of our emotions, and it also has an impact on our physical health.
A study by Gross and Levenson, published in 1997 in the Journal of Abnormal Psychology, found that when participants were asked to suppress either a positive (amusement) or negative (sadness) emotion, the act of suppressing the emotion produced increased activation in the ‘sympathetic nervous system’ (SNS). The SNS is the part of our nervous system that sets off the ‘fight or flight’ response and gets us ready for action. Along with the release of stress hormones, it increases our heart rate, blood pressure and breathing in order to tackle the task at hand. If this type of activity is prolonged it takes us into a state of chronic stress. So if we suppress either positive or negative emotions this has an effect on our body similar to that that occurs when we are dealing with something stressful.
Somehow, we have been given the message that it’s wrong, weak or crazy to notice and express our sensations and our feeling-states. But the research is clear that suppression as a strategy for managing our emotional health is not helpful. Peter Levine, in his book In an Unspoken Voice, discusses a study in which emotional suppression was correlated with higher rates of heart disease in men. James Pennebaker and Joshua Smyth’s research into expressive writing and emotional disclosure found a link between poor immune system functioning and emotional suppression (Pennebaker & Smyth, 2019). All of this tells us that if we stop trying to avoid our feelings, we might feel better. But how do we actually do this?
THE ALTERNATIVE TO SUPPRESSION: PROCESSING EMOTIONS
This is the first step. It might sound obvious, but it is central to being able to gain mastery over what is happening for you. There is a part of the brain that is involved in ‘noticing’ and in becoming aware of what you experience. You can enhance it, and some scientists would say that you can increase the size of this area through long-term mindfulness practice.
The next thing I’m going to ask you to do is to set an intention to be curious about the sensations in your body that you notice. Maybe you are used to immediately doing something to distract yourself from the fluttery feeling of anxiety, or that quick whoosh of adrenalin. Whatever it is that you notice, how about seeing where the sensation goes if you let it be? Yes, you can distract yourself if you want to, but that isn’t your only option. Could you allow yourself to be like a scientist and be curious about what you notice? Could you try to embrace the uncertainty rather than push it away? The sensations in your body are not going to harm you. You do not need to fear them. If you let them be, they will come and they will go. Like waves on a beach.
When or if you feel angry or anxious, you might also notice lots of thoughts or maybe images flashing up, wanting attention. Your brain will be trying to figure out what’s going on and what to do. That’s OK. Notice what is happening in your body. You do not have to answer the thoughts right now, let them be there. They will come, and they will go.
Observe without judgement
Try it now. Check in with your body. What posture are you holding? What position is your spine in? Is it slumped, or twisting to the side? Imagine straightening it a little bit, and actually let your spine move to where it wants to. Then notice your stomach: are you holding it in? Let it go, let it flop out. Adjust yourself if you notice any twists or tenseness anywhere else. Notice with curiosity and without judgement.
Take a breath in and slowly breathe out, trying to make that out- breath last for a count of six. Do this again, then once more, and now take a big breath in and let it flop out like a big sigh.
Oh, thank you so much for that, Donna.
Great advice there. I’m sure we all appreciate this. Now for the entire book – here are the links!
Get the book! Amazon: https://amzn.to/3zqhSdj