What to Expect When Visiting a Psychologist
Psychologists help all sorts of people to live happier, healthier and more productive lives. People often attend the psychologist when they are experiencing a hard time but learning some of the principles taught by psychologists is a useful life-skill to attain regardless.
They can help you work through your problems by allowing you to talk openly with someone who is objective, neutral and nonjudgmental. They don’t offer solutions or advice for your practical problems but rather help guide you to find the solutions for yourself.
How They Can Help
A big part of what psychologists do is to help identify and change unhelpful thought and behaviour patterns that are keeping you from feeling your best and help build on your coping techniques & mental resilience.
It’s a Personal Choice
Choosing a psychologist is a personal choice. There are many approaches to psychotherapy like Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT). If after a few visits to your psychologist you are not finding the sessions useful please don’t give up on the process. Talk to your psychologist or the GP who referred you to consider a different therapist or a different approach.
Some people find reading self-help books useful. Obviously this cannot replace a direct interaction with your psychologist but can help reinforce what you learn or be used as pre-reading. The Happiness Trap by Dr Russ Harris is one such example. The advice contained in the book is based on a modern, scientifically validated version of CBT called Acceptance & Commitment Therapy (ACT).
Mindfulness & Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT)
ACT is a modern, scientifically validated version of CBT. Here are some of the basic principles;
The fact is life involves pain. Living a full & meaningful life involves experiencing the full range of emotions both positive & negative.
Negative feelings are normal, not abnormal or an illness. In order to be ‘happy’ we often try to get rid of or avoid unhappy thoughts, but the harder we try, the more they affect us.
Your brain was originally designed an early warning system for danger. It broadcasts these warnings all day, everyday and it can’t be turned off. It’s designed to be overly sensitive. If you miss one sign of danger a dinosaur might eat you; if you sense danger where there is none, no physical harm is done. The trouble is that many of the dangers we perceive in modern society are no longer physical but psychological & emotional and many of the warnings we receive from our brain are no longer helpful suggestions.
If your brain is sending you a suggestion like; “your electricity bill overdue and you must pay it”, that is a negative message but a useful suggestion. However if your brain is saying; “you’re ugly”, “nobody likes you” these are negative messages which are not helpful suggestions.
Recognising that thoughts are just ‘language’ can help create some emotional distance between yourself and any unhelpful suggestions your brain is broadcasting. For example, having the thought in your head “I am ugly” can have a big impact on you. If you were to say to yourself “I am having the thought that I am ugly”, or ironically say to yourself “thanks brain, for telling me I’m ugly” you can see how this could begin to reduce the impact of these thoughts.
Mindfulness means to take notice. You can begin to practice Mindfulness with exercises that are a bit like meditation. The exercises involve concentrating on something like your breath. While paying attention to your breath your mind (and everybody else’s) will wander (sometimes to negative thoughts). The purpose of the exercise is to NOTICE that your mind has wandered and bring your focus back to your breath. Here are some apps that can help you learn these skills;
Headspace (cost incurred after 10 sessions)
Smiling Mind (free)
ACT Coach (free)
Sleep School (free)
Once you’ve practiced these simple exercises, you can try to apply mindfulness to activities in your daily life, for example brushing your teeth mindfully, cooking, working or doing homework mindfully.
When you are mindful that your brain is broadcasting unhelpful negative thoughts, you can bring your focus to something else like your breath or a task that you are performing.
Understanding how your brain works and learning to notice, recognise and tune out unhelpful thoughts form some of the fundamentals of ACT. Another really important component is identifying values & goals that are important to you in life and striving towards these through your choices and actions. Sometimes you have to be prepared to endure some discomfort in order to attain these. Your psychologist or some GP’s can help you with this process.