Counselling, Psychology and Psychotherapy in Melbourne
Emotional or psychological pain is felt within relationships. And most of what goes wrong in any relationship (partner, family, friend, colleague, boss) stems from hurt feelings- emotional and psychological pain. Emotional pain can hurt as much as physical pain. Our brain cannot solve emotional pain, purely because the pain is emotional. So it only makes sense for the solution to come from exploring the emotions involved. Emotional pain left unaddressed leaves our brain overworking, causing stress and leaves us ‘stuck’ at pain, placing our health, happiness and our relationships at risk.
Our Counsellors and Psychologists are trained in interpersonal neurobiology to notice, attend and respond to your pain. Call us now on 0400 999 918 for a confidential discussion. Read on for more information.
Counselling, Psychology and Psychotherapy Heals Emotional Pain
There is a significant body of scientific evidence showing that emotional pain and wounds can hurt equally as much as a physical injury. When you experience psychological pain from a relationship breakup, relationship conflict, unhappy marriage, social exclusion, workplace harassment or bullying, or the death of a loved one, your brain is activated in exactly the same regions that respond to physical pain.
These regions, the secondary somatosensory cortex and the dorsal posterior insula, are parts of the brain that don’t distinguish between psychological pain and physical pain.
This is why you may find people describing emotional pain in physical terms, such as:
- I feel gutted.
- A bomb went off in my head.
- My mouth dries up and I can't speak.
- I put up a wall/go into my bubble.
- There’s a knot in my stomach.
- I feel broken.
- I see red.
- A part of me has died.
- I just feel numb.
Feelings of fear, rejection, loneliness, guilt, low self-esteem and failure can cause us great distress and pain. In fact, psychological pain (including anxiety, depression, trauma, loss and grief) can sometimes be more painful than a physical hurt.
Counselling and psychotherapy heals emotional or psychological pain. Working with a highly trained and experienced therapist, you will engage in evidence-based treatments, such as attachment based therapy or Emotionally Focused Therapy, that allow you to gain mastery over your own experience. These therapeutic approaches are well-researched and documented processes that help you 'make sense' of your pain, locate meaning in what has happened to you, so that you can move ahead, feel confident in taking control of your life.
One way that counselling and psychotherapy creates change in your life is by teaching you to distinguish between “clean pain” and “dirty pain.” These terms were coined by Dr. Steven Hayes (Acceptance and Commitment Therapy) to describe the difference between pain that arises naturally from an immediate cause (clean pain) and the long-lasting suffering we experience due to our repetitive thoughts and feelings about an event (dirty pain). Clean pain, even when it is intense, tends to diminish quickly. In fact, any emotion (clean pain) no matter how intense only lasts 90 seconds! It is normal to experience painful feelings stemming from an unpleasant event, and these emotions tend to flow through us quickly and allow us to move on.
However, for most people, dirty pain creates a kind of negative feedback loop by triggering the original painful emotion again and again due to our brain's primary function- to find a solution out of pain. Our brains cannot solve an emotional problem, purely because the pain is emotional. Think about it. Most of what goes wrong in any relationship (partner, family, friend, colleague/boss) stems from hurt feelings. It makes sense for the solution to flow from exploring the feelings involved. It can be said, anxiety and depression is also 'dirty pain'. Underneath the symptoms of these two common and debilitating diseases lies what was once 'clean pain', left unprocessed. Sue Johnson, the creator of Emotionally Focused Therapy, stated that clean pain generates primary emotions such as joy, fear, or sadness, which are direct responses to something happening in the present moment. She referred to the product of dirty pain as secondary emotions, such as worry, pride, annoyance, frustration, regret, embarrasment, humiliation, paranoia or jealousy, loneliness (just to name a few) are feelings which we develop and maintain to keep our distance from the original emotion. Dirty pain is typically accompanied by judgemental thoughts about ourselves, such as:
- I’m not good enough
- I'll never have that promotion.
- I'm such a loser.
- I am a failure.
- Why can’t I do anything right?
- What's wrong with me?
- I am going to be left behind.
- No one will ever love me.
- I am always going to be alone.
In the short term, it seems to make sense to avoid negative emotions—they are unpleasant and may remind us of events that we would prefer to forget. However, it’s not possible to totally escape from these emotions, and there are some painful experiences that we cannot avoid without facing adverse consequences. Our attempts to avoid feeling the “clean pain” brought on by negative circumstances can lead us to stuckness in long-term suffering and “dirty pain” in the form of depression, anxiety, and problematic behaviours.
Counselling and psychotherapy helps to break this dirty pain cycle so that you can understand the pain and move on, without being constantly pulled back into persistent negative feedback loop. In working with a counsellor or therapist, you will be able to clearly identify and experience your primary emotions in the moment, no longer needing to rely on the judgemental inner critic that focuses on your past mistakes or worries about the future. You will begin to live your life as it is NOW not what it was THEN.
The experience of my client Sally demonstrates how attempting to avoid emotional pain can cause even more suffering in the long term. Sally, 43 years old, realised her marriage was in trouble when her husband started to come home late and took frequent trips away for work. She found it difficult to talk with him as he had a temper plus she hates conflict and actively avoids it. She did not seek help because she felt it would be embarrassing. 3 years later, she came to see me to help her save her 14-year marriage after learning that her husband was having an affair. Unfortunately, it was too late. Her husband decided to leave the marriage and stay with his new partner. Over the course of the following year, I helped Sally process her feelings of intense grief and loss at the ending of her marriage. This was a difficult journey for Sally, who had a habit of avoiding uncomfortable feelings. In her marriage, she had shut down emotionally whenever her husband indicated he was unhappy, particularly around issues of lack of sex and intimacy. This habit of disconnecting from her uncomfortable feelings and her partner made it impossible for Sally to seek help early enough to save her marriage. In working with me to process what had happened, Sally shared that she had grown up with a demanding father who valued individuals based on success, achievements and money. In her growing years Sally experienced feelings of not being good enough and was afraid to try anything new for fear of failing. Sally was highly educated but didn't feel she could pursue her passion in fashion as that would not be recognised as a career in her father's eyes. She went from living with her father to marrying an ambitious and driven man, never having the opportunity to willingly decide and choose her own values. These circumstances led Sally to feel that her worth was decided by others, and failing in her marriage made her feel she had failed as a person. As we began to understand her painful feelings of failure (or more accurately, a lack of self-esteem stemming from an under developed sense of her own identity), Sally was able to gain a new found ownership over her own life and to move on from the loss of her marriage.
How Counselling Heals Both “Clean” and “Dirty” Emotional Pain
Why does counselling and psychotherapy work? The process of therapy allows you to bring out into the open what has previously been an internal experience. Effective therapy gently uncovers what is painful (and usually private) to create a new interpretation, experience and meaning. Counselling provides a safe space to understand your pain and to bring forth the most positive and best parts of yourself. It is an opportunity for challenge and growth within a safe, authentic caring relationship. There is a scientific basis for the effectiveness of this process. Research in the area of attachment theory indicates that there is one single most significant aspect of the client–therapist relationship: the therapist’s ability to be emotionally attuned to the needs of the client. In other words, the attuned therapist is skilled in the ability to notice and interpret your words, body language, and other ways of communicating so that you are able to feel truly witnessed and understood. The attuned therapist meets you exactly where you are right now, validates your experience and walks with alongside you to help navigate the journey of creating a new relationship with yourself and others.
Dr Daniel Siegel is one of the foremost experts in the neuroscience of attachment theory. He has stated that his passion for this research is driven by interpersonal biology’s promise for people who are suffering from emotional pain: "If you can make sense of your life story, you can change it." The opportunity for change is available to anyone, regardless of age or culture, because the human brain has a quality called neural plasticity. Through understanding and evolving our thoughts, behaviours and mindset, we can actually create new neural pathways to heal old wounds. What facilitates this change process is the safe and trusting relationship created with an attuned Psychologist or Counsellor, who acts as a mirror or witness to your emotional experience at the same time enabling you with skills to self manage your emotions for the long term . As Louis Cozolino wrote in “The Neuroscience of Psychotherapy” (2002), neural plasticity can be enhanced through “a safe and trusting relationship with an attuned other”.
To summarise, people tend to repeat and get stuck in unhealthy relational patterns learned from childhood and unsatisfying or hurtful adult relationships. However, neuroscience has now made it possible to transform your relationship patterns through a new relational experience with an attuned therapist, by becoming aware of your habitual reactions and together create a new path forward. This makes so much sense—we are born into relationships, we are wounded in relationships and we are healed in relationships.
How Counselling, Psychotherapy and Psychology Can Help
Why is counselling and psychotherapy so effective in repairing the under developed or wounded parts of us so that we are able to heal ourselves and our relationships? The answer lies partly in the action of mirror neurons in the brain. Scientists discovered in the 1990s that when we watch someone perform an action, our own neurons fire in the same way as if we had actually performed the same action ourselves. A simple example of this is when we see someone yawn, don't we feel like yawning too? This is an automatic and unconscious neural response that creates an empathetic connection between two individuals. In the therapeutic relationship, mirror neurons play a significant role in allowing your counsellor to gain deep insight into your emotions and body sensations. Mirror neurons also make it possible for your counsellor to transmit important information about skills in self-regulating when emotion seems overwhelming. A therapist who understands interpersonal neurobiology can remain in a relaxed and alert state even when sitting with a client who is very anxious or angry; the therapist is then able to empathically 'hold' or contain the client, attend to the emotions that arises (mirroring regulation of emotions) and respond appropriately (learning skills). This process calms, soothes, nurtures and ultimately validates the client. In this space, healing begins.
Ben, 60 years old, came to me after unsatisfactory experiences with multiple other psychologists and psychiatrists, saying that none of them had helped him to get better. He was intelligent, articulate, considered himself intellectually superior and believed he could manage his feelings by not letting them get to him. Ben said that he was very lonely and had never been successful in love relationships. He had two friends he spent time with sporadically. Ben viewed other people as being too shallow, boring, and not smart enough to be worthy of his time. He had many boxes of old photographs that he wanted to sort through and digitise, but every time he opened these boxes, he became agitated and overwhelmed with feelings: anxiety about photos of himself as a young child at a school where he was bullied; anger in seeing photographs of his mother; depression because of photographs of his 2 deceased dogs, the creatures he had loved most in this world. I asked Ben to bring some of these photos to show me during one of his counselling sessions, and we discussed what each of us saw in the photos. Ben saw a detached and critical mother in one photo, but I pointed out what I saw—a strong-looking young man with fire in his eyes. Looking at a photo of Ben as a young boy of 10 at school, he started to stutter as he pointed out the boys that had bullied him. I asked him about the sweet-looking girl standing next to him in the photo, and his eyes lit up as he described how he had been “in love” with this girl, Annie, but had been too shy to tell her. Lastly, as Ben showed me photographs of his 2 deceased dogs, I pointed out the devotion on the faces of his dogs as they looked at him with unconditional love. Ben teared up as he remembered how much they loved him and he loved them. At the following session (a week later) Ben walked in with a spring in his step. He reported he had sorted through all his boxes of photographs. In his words, “The ghosts don’t frighten me anymore. It doesn’t hurt anymore”. Additionally, he had done some investigating to try to find Annie and had located her on Facebook. Ben wanted to know my opinion about whether he should contact her!
The therapeutic relationship is a microcosm in which you can have a positive neurological experience of being with others. Your therapist is trained in recognising feelings of pain and distress, which are causing your nervous system to release stress hormones that put your body in a state of high arousal and lead you to make relational choices based on fear. A Counsellor or Psychologist with a background in interpersonal neurobiology knows how to help you calm this nervous system response in order to shift focus to the prefrontal cortex—the part of the brain that excels at clear thinking and executive decision-making. As you relate to your therapist and your therapist to you, within this two way relationship, you are learning new relational skills within the safety of the therapeutic relationship. This relational experience becomes your new template, the new way into how you can relate to yourself and to others for satisfying and successful relationships. For many therapy clients, it is the first time that they have felt truly witnessed, understood, valued and loved.
Counselling and psychotherapy helps you:
- Heal from psychological pain at work or home.
- Strengthen or repair your marriage.
- Resolve conflict and emotionally connect you to your partner.
- Address sexual concerns.
- Prepare for a new relationship.
- Prepare for marriage (pre-marital counselling).
- Resolve family conflict.
- Gain effective parenting skills.
- Build a strong blended family or address stepfamily issues.
- With separation or divorce (for you and your children).
- Cope with life changes and difficult transitions.
- Heal and move ahead from emotional abuse.
- Heal from childhood abuse.
- Heal from emotional neglect (childhood and adult relationship).
Family and friends may be great support in times of emotional pain. But our psychologists and counsellors are different. No matter what has happened in your past, no matter what you are struggling with today, we have the expertise, experience and dedication to help you achieve the emotional health, happiness and fulfilment you deserve.
Connect with us now by calling our Counsellor or Psychologist on 0400 999 918 or contact us by email.
(note: personal details have been changed to protect client confidentiality)