Mindful Counseling

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There is often a dissimilarity in expectations between medical treatment and mental health treatment. One of the reasons is probably because psychology and counseling are more ephemeral. You can’t touch or see psychological ideas. And sometimes improvements happen without anyone really knowing how or why.

Erich Fromm wrote about how when people seek medical help they are often willing to accept quite bad odds because a chance is better than no chance. Maybe the doctor says that with surgery, there is a 20% probability of completely removing a malignant tumor, for example. You’re probably going to take those odds, but for 80% of people it goes badly. It’s strange in this light to consider that many people who go to therapy expect or at least hope to get completely better.

One way to deal with the stark and painful realization that full recovery from symptoms might not be possible is to approach the entire process of counseling mindfully, with heightened conscious awareness of what is happening to you in the moment inside the therapy session and outside of it. The more you practice mindfulness, the less you will worry about the past or the future, which tends to bring some psychic relief all by itself.

Mindfulness and counseling are a potent combination. When you are more aware of your present you will notice small shifts in perception, emotions, and behavior during and after counseling sessions. Before, you might have been so focused on the end goal of total cessation of symptoms that you didn’t even notice the small but important movement you made. You can observe these changes mindfully, meditating upon what they tell you about the direction you are headed and where you actually are.

I want to use the comparison of having to amputate a limb to prevent infection and recovering from grief to bring home what we are talking about. All of us have had experiences that elicit grief in our lives so hopefully this example will be applicable for everyone. On the medical side amputating a limb is an ultimately acceptable although highly regrettable course. The alternative is to let the festering wound spread poison to the rest of your body and kill you.

Losing someone your really care about, whether it be through death or separation, is a painful wound that has the potential to negatively affect the whole of your being if you don’t take care of it. Many believe their grief will never end, while others want things to go back to exactly the way they were before. Neither expectation will be true if you give grief recovery everything you have. Healing is possible and lots of people do heal who never thought they would. But the part of you that you lost will always be missing, and you will always be aware that it’s missing, just like an amputated limb.

Ironically relief can be one of the emotions that occurs when expectations for counseling are adjusted. The goal can be to enter the process mindfully and realize that any progress, however small, is still progress and a good thing. There is no possible way to predict your final destination so instead consider any movement towards growth a victory worth celebrating. This mentality will probably make the neurotransmitters serotonin and dopamine fire, which both have to do with happiness. The paradox is that worrying too much about getting better can keep you from getting better. Whether you experience a total cessation of symptoms or not, it’s worth giving counseling your best shot just like it’s worth taking a shot with a medical decision when it’s your only option.