How I helped Paul reclaim his life from anxiety and finally connected the worlds of coaching and counselling
I never intended to get into coaching. The transition for me was organic and happened purely as a response to my clients needs but I can remember the moment I finally crossed the bridge into coaching.
It was my client Paul who, without knowing it, led the way and in doing so, opened the door to a whole new professional world. I’m going to tell you the true story of what happened with Paul and, in the telling of that story, hope I can show you a little of a new integrated movement in the therapeutic world and how I now work as a counsellor-coach.
More skills needed
To describe what happened, I need to go further back in my professional journey to when I was studying for my first counselling diploma. I had three placements at that time; one working for a bereavement charity, one with a youth charity and another counselling in a category A prison.
I was seeing a lot of clients. A high proportion of them had problems with things like panic attacks, anger, self harm and even Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and, although I could identify these problems, I felt I just didn't have the skills to deal with them and resolve them, More to the point, neither did my clients.
The active listening skills and empathic understanding I was being taught at that time were great skills, but not enough. I felt there must be another way and wondered what kind of counsellor I would become. Perhaps CBT was the way forward for me?
Then, one day, a visiting tutor mentioned the Human Givens approach. I went along to a workshop and had a moment of insight. I realised that, rather than just following, listening and reflecting back to my client in the hope they would have a moment of insight, I had to give myself permission to lead.
So I embarked on a second diploma while I was still doing the first (not something I recommend) but the juxtaposition of training in two completely different therapeutic approaches caused internal conflict and raised many questions in me about the training of mental health practitioners.
No ‘nodding therapy’ thank you
After completing both diplomas, a local GP asked if she could make referrals to me. She was the mental health lead in her practice and did not want what she called ‘nodding therapy’. I had to offer something different; something fast and effective to help get her patients off their antidepressants.
She started referring patients to me; one or two at first just to test the water but, before long, I was seeing around 20 a week, sometimes more. It soon became clear the new way I was working was getting results quickly. I was becoming more and more systemised with the approach. I had to. There were so many interventions available to me now and so many skills I could use; I started creating checklists and hand outs for clients so I didn’t forget something important.
I remember Paul clearly
When I greeted Paul at the door, he was smartly dressed and had a professional appearance. He was, as it turned out, a successful graphic designer with his own business but, as he settled into the sofa in my office and began to tell his story, he started to cry as he recounted the increasing numbers of panic attacks that were beginning to dominate his life.
It had all started after his father had unexpectedly died of heart attack at the wheel of his car. After his death, Paul found that, whenever he got into his own car, his chest would become tight, his breathing speeded up and he thought he would pass out. He had several trips to A&E and sadly described to me the shame of being taken out of his own home on a stretcher with his distressed wife and children watching.
Medical tests showed there was no problem with his heart but he was now having up to eight episodes a day. He avoided driving whenever he could, putting off family outings and holidays. He told me he feared for his health, his sanity, the future of his business and the future of his relationship with his wife and children.
The Fusion formula
My starting point for working with Paul, as with all my clients, was to ask him to fill out an emotional needs audit. Based on Maslow's hierarchy of human needs, it acknowledges that all human beings have the same innate needs and, if those needs are met in balance, they will feel good about their life.
Paul’s audit showed he did not feel safe, was not giving attention, had stopped having fun, now felt he lacked status, had little sense of achievement and had lost his sense of control of both his life and his health. His goal for our work together was to try and reduce his panic attacks to perhaps one day.
How to STOP panic attacks
I felt the essence of Paul’s problem was that he had been traumatised by his father's death and his own panic attacks. He was now misusing his imagination, playing a horror film in his head of a frightening future. The subsequent high anxiety was severely restricting his life and preventing him getting many of his emotional needs met. The solution would be to break the trauma pattern, calm his anxiety and restore hope.
The human brain is constantly matching patterns. Events in the here and now can quickly reconnect us to past traumas and all the fight and flight emotions associated with that. Paul was pattern matching his physical symptoms to those of his father and, more to the point, once he had had a full-blown panic attack whilst driving, every time he now got into the driver's seat of his car, he re-experienced the same response.
I taught Sam the STOP™ System to help him 'step back' from his symptoms and calm his fight/flight response. On that very first session, the pattern created by Paul’s trauma was swiftly resolved through a visualisation technique. I got him to visualise him having his first panic attack as though he was viewing it on a film screen. By encouraging him to move the image backwards and forwards, his emotional brain was able to integrate the traumatic memory, unhook the emotion from it and allow it to move into its rightful place in the hippocampus of the brain.
I would later write a book describing in detail this extraordinarily effective technique. The book was called PTSD Resolution: Reclaiming life from trauma. Paul returned seven days later. He’d had no panic attacks all week and was amazed.
To be honest, I was a bit amazed too. This new way of working was so effective it often caught me by surprise. I was so pleased for Paul, but it did pose a bit of a problem. I wondered what we would now talk about. I asked my client if he wanted to keep his remaining sessions. He said he did and he made a specific request. Paul knew exactly how he wanted to use those sessions. He wanted me to help him paint a picture of a problem-free future. He had suffered for so long with panic attacks, he said, he'd lost sight of who he was.
This was the moment I finally crossed the bridge
Rather than focusing on the past now, we re-focused on what the future could look like for Paul when he wasn’t confined by anxiety and fear. It was joyous work. I looked for additional tools to help and found the holistic wheel of life which became an amazing ‘passport to communication’ with my client, helping us both to really focus a wonderful future ahead.
What happened with Paul repeated with more and more of my clients. Presenting problems were quickly resolved with the kind of positive psychology tools and techniques we now have access to because of our greater understanding of the human brain and how to manage it.
Later with the same GP colleague, I founded the therapeutic coaching charity Reclaim Life and trained volunteers in key aspects of what I called ‘therapeutic coaching.’ That training later became the NCFE accredited Fusion Therapeutic Coaching Diploma.
What happened to Paul?
About 6 months later, Paul sent one of his colleagues to me who was suffering with similar problems.
I asked how Paul was.
‘He’s doing great’ came the reply. ‘He said to tell you, you literally saved his life.’
‘Now, please could you do the same for me?’