What is Psychoanalysis?

Modern misconceptions of psychoanalysis

It’s a shame the father of psychoanalysis Sigmund Freud, has become somewhat of a mockery in popular culture. The Freud cartoons are often very funny, but serve to add ridicule to his ideas; those very ideas that have profoundly influenced and changed our society. Language and concepts that run right through our lives, the unconscious, the meaning of dreams and the idea our behaviour is affected by our past and not just our brains. His thinking and writing were brave, creative and off beam. But perhaps there’s something quite uncomfortable about being reminded we’re not always as in control of our behaviour as we like to think we are. To a certain extent, society survives and operates by denying this fact.

Perhaps similarly, the popular view of psychoanalysis has served to simplify and caricature it as static, an out-dated body of knowledge formulated over a hundred years ago, by a patriarchal figure that believed the root of mental disturbance was unconscious sexual conflict. The reality couldn’t be further from the truth. Psychoanalysis continues to grow and develop organically, being made up of a number of different and related strands of ideas about the human personality, largely generated from and in response to clinical work. It’s neither dogmatic and unchanging, nor possible to define neatly.

What is psychoanalysis?

As a psychological treatment, psychoanalysis is a method of psychotherapy that can be very useful for people who are struggling with longstanding difficulties in the way they think and feel about themselves, the world, and their relationships with others. Shorter-term approaches to therapy may be useful in helping clients find ways to cope with recent manifestations of states like anxiety or depression. It may be easier to identify a trigger in such cases, specific events or life stressors such as a relationship breakdown, or loss of employment. But for challenging psychological and emotional aspects of a person’s life that have been around for longer and may have their beginnings earlier in life, an approach that takes time and endeavours to understand the bigger picture is necessary.

If you were to stop and take a few minutes to reflect on the hour or so leading up to reading this article, noting any thoughts, feelings and sensations, what you’d notice would undoubtedly give a glimpse into the very individual way you have of viewing the world. You’d probably also realise that such an opportunity to stop, reflect and think about how you experience life is extremely rare in our busy modern day society. A psychoanalytic psychotherapist is trained to create a space and a type of engagement that encourages such internal reflection. They carefully observe and listen to you and overtime gradually build up a picture of the way you view yourself, your relationships with others and how your thinking and behaviour influence your experience of the world. They will gradually feed this evolving understanding back to you in ways that are manageable and in which you can talk and think about together. It sounds simple, but it's incredibly important and what many of us may be missing. Having someone to think with us about things can really help us to think about things.

What is the unconscious?

In a recent social situation, I found myself struggling to make a case for perhaps Freud’s most influential concept. Choosing to ignore what we don’t like or feel comfortable with? The retort was yes perhaps, but everyone does that, it doesn’t mean there’s an unconscious. The metaphor of the iceberg is nicely illustrative, what we choose to show on the surface is only the tip, whilst so much remains hidden beneath the surface. Repeating patterns of behaviour even when we don’t want to and they don’t serve us well? Comes close perhaps and something we can all relate to.

The royal road to the unconscious, of course, became the analysis of dreams, but Freud believed there were moments for all of us in which we’re made aware of our unconscious, through what he termed ‘bungled actions’; what’ve become known as Freudian slips. The moment of truth in the conflict between conscious and unconscious, when we trip ourselves up and say what we really mean, without the filter of the conscious mind to censor. We’re probably all able to recall our own often-humorous slips, trips, and bungles. When Radio 4's Today referred recently to the BBC'S "new spanking building" instead of "spanking new building", listeners responded to the unconscious innuendo with gleeful letters.

Moments like this provide us with fleeting glimpses of the thoughts, feelings and desires that have been repressed, relegated and held out of awareness for fear of causing conflict with a part of us deemed more acceptable. The therapeutic setting provides us with conditions for greater unconscious access, the safety and reliability provided by meeting in the same room at the same time for 50 minutes. In traditional analysis, the client lies on a couch, the therapist sitting behind out of view to facilitate the free association that frees the client from censor. Many psychoanalysts still operate this way and require frequent attendance, between 3 – 5 times weekly. Such frequency keeps the link between the unconscious and conscious alive from one day to the next and enables overcoming the resistance that repression creates. Melanie Klein adapted this approach to children, using play as symbolic expression and a kind of pre-verbal free association, giving insight into childhood unconscious conflicts.

Modern developments

Psychoanalysis had always been interested in early child development. Work with children led to the development of new strands, attachment theory, the British school of object relations and inter-subjective and relational approaches. Whilst concepts of the unconscious and repression remain at the core of psychoanalysis, we now know much more about the importance of our earliest relationships. A combination of nature and the nurture we receive from our environment, an interaction between a new-borns temperament, their adjustment to the world and the emotional development and capacity of parents influence our physical and emotional development both early on and into adult life.

Advances in child development research have provided evidence for the importance of our early bonds via neurodevelopmental findings. We’re born with innate capacities to relate, being drawn to eyes, faces, voices and smells and preferring those that are familiar. We imitate our caregiver’s expressions and movements; new-borns stick their tongues out in response to an adult (with quite a lot of effort!). Infants respond physically and physiologically to touch and being held, distress and heartbeats are calmed. From our earliest moments, even in the womb, we respond to the conditions that facilitate our growth and adapt to circumstances when those conditions aren’t present. Foetus’s exposed to chronic stress develop a stress response of their own, perhaps anticipating the world they’ll be born into.

It seems surprising today to think that pre-1950’s, much of the troubles of infancy and childhood, the tantrums, rage and inability to bear frustration had been passed off as unimportant, or simply attributed to physical factors. Psychoanalysis has painted a vivid picture of the primitive anxieties experienced by infants born in a state of total dependency. Even for the immature child, the world can seem completely overwhelming. If we have a parent that’s able to tolerate, think about and in some way make our distress manageable, by 1 year we begin to develop the capacity ourselves. If we’re fortunate enough to have parents that respond to our emotional needs consistently and reliably, we learn its safe to express ourselves and expect to be met; crucial for developing healthy relationships in and outside of the family later on.

When parents aren’t available enough or capable to provide a facilitating environment, perhaps due to anxiety or depression, we know this translates into difficulties in emotional and psychological development and behavioural adjustment during childhood and adolescence. Neural pathways are laid down from our earliest experiences, but continue to be created throughout life. When things haven’t been ideal, the relationship with a psychoanalytic psychotherapist offers a chance to think about these early experiences again, and through thinking and re-experiencing, the opportunity for something reparative and different from before to occur.

Bereavement, loss and grief

Bereavement, loss and grief are universal human experiences

Although grieving is a natural process and a natural response to bereavement, loss and grief still affects everyone differently. Sometimes the anguish and heartache can leave us feeling that we are alone. Finding ways of coping with your grief and reaching out for support when it’s needed can help us feel less alone. As grief is such an intensely personal experience there is no right or wrong way to grieve. You may experience a range of difficult and unexpected emotions, such as anger, shock, disbelief, guilt and profound sadness. The pain of grief can be disruptive for our physical health, interrupting our sleep, affecting regular and healthy eating habits, as well as our ability to concentrate and think clearly. These are normal reactions to a loss, but there are healthy ways to support us during our grieving process.

How you are grieving will be influenced by many things, such as the circumstances of your loss

Death of a loved one
Divorce or relationship ending
Loss of health
Loss of employment or financial security
Death of a loved pet
Loss of home
Loved one’s serious illness

How to live with a loss?

• Acknowledge all your feelings and accept that your bereavement, loss and grief will be unique to you.
• Seek help from people who care for you or from someone professional when needed. At different times during grieving, we may need different things. If you can, be clear with your friends what you need at this stage, whether it is talking it through or having a cup of tea while watching films.
• Taking care of yourself physically will support your emotional well being, but try not to burn out or overwhelm yourself. It is important that you pay attention to how you feel in this difficult time.

How long does grieving last?

There is no timetable for grieving. Sometimes it may feel as if you will not be able to come to terms with the loss you are experiencing. The pain of bereavement, loss and grief can feel overwhelming at times. Living with any loss can be challenging and the first year of a loss can be especially difficult.

Stages of Grief

Although grief may at times feel like intense waves knocking you off your feet, over time these feeling eventually feel less intense and less overwhelming, we can begin to feel we have a firmer footing and although we still experience waves of emotion, they begin to feel less intense over time. Be patient with yourself.
Although we believe that our response to bereavement, loss and grief is unique and may affect you differently, some of our clients find it useful to learn about the five stages of grief described by Elizabeth Kubler-Ross :

  • Denial – Shock and disbelief, it can be hard to accept what has happened. You expect things to be the same even though you know they are not the same.
  • Anger –Experiencing the pain of grief can be difficult. Even if the loss is no one’s fault, you may feel anger and resentment at the injustice, you may also feel guilt associated with your loss.
  • Bargaining – You would make any deal for this not to be real, you are not able or ready to adjust to the loss you feel.
  • Depression – Profound sadness following a loss is natural.
  • Acceptance – Eventually, you may notice that you are putting less emotional energy into your grieving process and that slowly, over time, you are becoming more engaged in your interests and family/social life. This is a time of adjusting and re-adjusting to the situation as it is.

Challenging times

If you can, prepare for those times that you might anticipate as particularly challenging such as anniversaries, birthdays, holidays and first anniversaries can be especially difficult. Putting some support in place around these times may help you, such as asking over a good friend/s, family member or find a bereavement group to share your feelings at this time or talk with a counsellor. You might take a day off or do something to remember and honour your feelings. Don’t be afraid to talk about the person who has died or your own experience of loss; people may not mention it because they don’t want to upset you. Seek out people who value your need to talk about your loss, are able to give you some space and can listen with empathy and compassion.

How to cope with grief?

Grief can feel isolating; sometimes, our own responses to our grief are also confusing and contradictory. One moment we may be laughing and the next moment overwhelmed with tears. You can have a good day and then wake up the next day feeling worse. At times we will want to have some time on our own with our grief, and at other times we will want to draw on support from others around us.

Generally, over time, our memories do fade, the physical details of our loved one become less sharp and for some people this can feel like another loss or even a betrayal of your loved one. It’s important to remember that even though the physical details may become less sharp, the love and affection that we feel about our loved ones, is something that nothing and no one can take away from us and not even time can change what is in our hearts.

When to seek professional help? - Warning signs of depression
It is common for a grieving person to feel sad and depressed, but there is a difference between natural grief and clinical depression. If the feelings don’t fade over time or they get worse it may be time to seek help. If you are continuing to neglect yourself or your family by not eating well or feel unable to perform your usual daily activities, if you are using alcohol or drugs because you are not feeling able to cope, or if you are continuing to find it difficult to get out of bed, your GP or a counsellor can help if you feel you are not coping.
If you are feeling suicidal at any time during your grieving process, seek help immediately.

Helpline: 116 123 (free of charge from a landline or mobile)
Email jo@samaritans.org
24 hr helpline offering emotional support for people who are experiencing feelings of distress or despair, including those which may lead to suicide

0800 585858
Campaign Against Living Miserably Help and support for young men aged 15-35 on issues which include depression and suicide.

HopeLine UK
0800 068 4141
For practical advice on suicide prevention for under 35s

0800 1111
For children and young people under 19
Nota Bene – this phone number won’t show up on your phone bill.

Psychological Resilience – why it’s important and ways to build it

I find human beings ability to change and grow fascinating! I became interested in the topic having had my own reserves tested through a particularly challenging time, so I started researching ways in which I could cope better the next time I hit a life roadblock. Inevitability, we all have the odd bad day, but what I am interested in is ones mental attitude to metaphorically dusting ourselves off, getting back up and keeping on going, essentially recognising the incident as a blip, not a constant. This led me to neuro-scientific research on how the wiring in our brains affects our ability to deal with adversity, which is dependent on many variables and impacts on our day to day mental health.
The proof that our brains are capable of repairing (known as neuro-plasticity), enabling us to re-wire our neural pathways or thinking patterns to fortify ourselves in the face of adversity, is such a positive message I am keen to share!”

As corporate life can impose an additional level of stress and pressure on us and in turn, our relationships and day to day living, which can drain our energy and resilience and make life tougher than it should be. Recognising the triggers in advance and learning tips/tools to combat this can be hugely beneficial.

Here we explore more on this important topic, the ways in which our reserves can be challenged and how we can make some lifestyle adjustments to improve our psychological resilience and lead more fulfilling lives.

What is Psychological Resilience?

Psychological Resilience is ones ability to bounce back after a set back or an adverse situation or to put it very simply, to get back up when one stumbles or falls and keep on going. On a word, bouncebackability!
It also links to one’s attitude to life; research has shown that having a positive outlook or disposition can help with building ones psychological resilience.

How might my Resilience be tested?

Modern life places demands on us that can test our reserves - being “always on”, excessive working hours or screen time. Equally, lack of sleep, poor diet and lack of exercise can all contribute to challenging our spirit and energy levels and the knock on affect impacts on our Resilience.

Are there any specific times in life that might impact on our ability to bounce back?

It could be one or any number of things, however times of change or disruption may provide a trigger, e.g. change of career or job, divorce or relationship breakdown, experiencing anxiety and or depression, eating disorders, bereavement, any adverse situation we are struggling with or simply, life!
As we approach Winter, with the limited daylight and decrease in temperature leads to a more sedentary lifestyle where we tend to eat and drink more and typically, exercise less. Whilst there is nothing “wrong” with that per-se, being mindful about having a balanced lifestyle will help to keep energy levels topped up.

What traits do resilient people typically have?

• They have a positive outlook and attitude towards the future
• They do not catastrophise, i.e. they see an adverse incident for what it is, a blip or a one off, not a way of being
• They have solid acheiveable goals and a desire/plan to achieve them
• They celebrate their successes
• They are unafraid of failure, recognising that through failure, we learn (we get back up…)
• They are empathetic and compassionate, however they don’t waste energy worrying about what others think. This is important as is recognising anxious “noise” v what we should be paying attention to
• They maintain healthy, boundaried relationships, they do not bow to peer pressure
• They focus on what they can control and do not see themselves as victims

How can I build my resilience muscle?

The good news is that we all have the ability to develop our Resilience and Reserves! As with tackling any life issue, there is no silver bullet that will “fix”, however adopting a holistic approach will help in abundance. Remembering our mind and body’s are intrinsically connected and therefore looking after one, will in turn, benefit the other.

Some tips for building Psychological Resilience include:

Energy creates energy so think about where you get yours as we are all different. Some tips that have been proven to build our resilience are:

• Move: Do more exercise, if you struggle to do this on your own, find a buddy and commit to certain times to increase motivation. Try different types if you are starting out. In winter, being out in daylight for 40 minutes+ is proven to have positive benefits on our wellbeing. It doesn’t have to be extreme, as long as it gets the endorphins moving and the blood flowing! The ideal would be some cardio mixed with yoga, as long as you feel the benefit.

• Sleep: Getting regular, quality sleep is essential to a healthy outlook. If your sleep is problematic, consider why. Is it the environment, mattress, excessive eating or drinking before bed, or spending too long on screens perhaps - it could be all of the above, by tackling one or all will have pretty instant impact on your sleep. Do not underestimate how lack of sleep impairs our day to day functionality and can make us feel “other”, which is not conducive to a healthy attitude to life.

• Meditation: A personal choice and one I have found useful during particularly stressful periods. There are plenty of app’s to help, many are free. Essentially this encourages a brain reboot and slows down busy minds, temporarily, which can increase energy levels. Research has shown that long term meditation has benefits on a cellular level and combating signs of dementia. However, we recommend you try meditating offline with the help of our Transcendental Meditation teachers.

• Connect: As human beings, we are programmed to connect with others. However in times of stress, we may not feel we have the time or energy to arrange or plan for “fun”. By being around friends and family who appreciate you and just enjoying the connection will have significant benefit on our mental health. Personally, I relate to the old adage of “laughter is the best medicine” - laughter is in addition to a physical release, creates endorphins which lead to a feeling of wellbeing and greater connectivity with those around us.

• Goals: Make plans and goals that reward and give energy, be it physical, educational or something completely different! Consider balance, if your occupation is cerebral, think about something physical or exercise based and if in a more physical job, perhaps an evening class or ways in which to tap into some of the resources you do not use on a day to day basis. This fires up the neural pathways and builds confidence which in turn builds resilience. The important thing is that they should not be arduous or punishing, this is about reinforcing positive and achievable targets.

• Rewards: I cannot stress the importance of recognising your achievements and progress, however small they may seem. By reaching ones goals, and providing a reward structure fires up the neural pathways and builds confidence which builds resilience.

• Supplements: Consider supporting your immune system with acupuncture, supplements, Magnesium Citrate (sleep/mood) Vit D in Winter should the lack of daylight be a thing for you, as it is for me. Everyone needs additional support at different times of life so explore what gives you a boost.

• Therapy: It might be helpful to seek professional support during acutely testing times. This can be particularly helpful in developing your own resilience tool-kit to combat and deal with your own needs.

• Kindness: Simple mantra to live by, be kind to yourself and others! In giving, may we recieve.

If you would like to connect with Katrina to discuss anything in this article, please feel free to do so on kat@welistentherapy.co.uk