Emotional Healing, Not Just Symptom Management
People often come into therapy saying something like this:
"I don't know why I'm even here. I've tried counseling before, and it's a waste of time and money. All it did was tell me everything that was wrong with me and my family. The counselor just sat there listening to me and never gave me any direction or suggestions. Or, they told me I needed to go get on medication – which just gave me a bunch of side effects that made things even worse than before I started!"
It's important to recognize that many different schools and styles of therapy exist. Some are focused on helping clients identify problems and vent their negative feelings about them. Such therapy tends to exacerbate distress, not heal it.
Another therapeutic response to emotional distress, which has become wildly popular in recent years, is medicating emotional symptoms. This takes little time or effort for the provider – or for the client. It's quick, it's easy, and it has a lot of advertising to publicize it. But quick-fix solutions rarely give way to lasting, satisfying results.
To heal means "to make or become whole." Deep down, and permanently. That kind of process only happens if both therapist and client are equipped to look at the real causes of emotional distress, and apply practical solutions to make it better – powerfully and permanently.
Some of the newer schools of therapy are built on the idea that people can learn practical skills to help themselves feel better. The great thing about these strategies is that once these skills are developed, they can be applied to situation after situation, and to person after person.
One case - two treatment options
For example, perhaps a client comes in to deal with the pain of a spouse's early death. Perhaps that client has started blaming herself – thinking of all the things she never did for her spouse – worrying that she never was effective in showing love to her husband before he was gone.
Her self esteem drops, her emotional pain intensifies. She withdraws from others, stops doing the things that used to make her and others happy.
This response expands pain and distress – not just for her, but for her children, who have now lost not only their father in death, but their mother in this paralyzing grief. This can have a negative "spin-off" effect for them, adding to the likelihood of them also developing symptoms of emotional imbalance.
In treatment, that woman could be given medication to dull her painful feelings. She could be encouraged to talk about how bad she feels, and to painfully relive all the other losses and sorrows that have accumulated throughout her life.
Or – she can be supported in this sad transition – then given new skills to help her develop a new sense of meaning and direction. She can learn to identify what thoughts just bring her down further, versus what thoughts can help her face and weather the storm.
She can learn to choose behaviors that build her energy, renew her confidence, strengthen her relationships – whether she initially "feels like it" or not.
Once she learns to survive and thrive from this challenge, she will be better equipped to apply those lessons to other challenges later in her life – and to help others do the same.
A skill-building approach to dealing with depression, anxiety, anger, addiction, grief, post-traumatic stress, marital conflict, or other challenges can be a powerful help in difficult times. Emotional healing – not just symptom management – truly is possible.
When applied in that way, counseling can help clients not focus on their pain, but be transformed by it – educated by their distresses to become stronger, more peaceful, more compassionate people than they knew how to be before – no matter what might be going on around them.
-- Carrie M. Wrigley, LCSW, Morning Light Counseling