There are so many types of therapy these days it can be hard to decipher which one is best for you. The acronyms are never-ending. All of that can overwhelm before even finding out if you mesh with the therapist themself. I’ve been there. I had given up on therapy after years of getting nowhere, never feeling seen, heard, and definitely not understood.
My diagnosis is C-PTSD. My therapist informed me that childbirth often plays a part in the onset of PTSD symptoms. I had my first (and only so far) baby just months before receiving my diagnosis. When I heard the symptoms of PTSD and how they might manifest, I realized I had a string of misdiagnoses in the past.
When I finally made it to my therapist, my therapist, who met me where I was and made sense to me, it was the best thing to happen to my life. I learned so many things that I believe everyone would benefit from having in their tool kits. I will provide resources and tricks that I found along my journey.
Just gonna add the disclaimer that, of course, this is not supposed to be in place of therapy — in fact, the opposite, I encourage therapy! Maybe some of what you learn from this post or the resources provided will help you feel comfortable about making the reach for help.
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Five Things I Learned in Therapy
My therapist used DBT (Dialectical Behavior Therapy) which is a form of cognitive behavioral therapy that takes things one step further by redirecting negative thought patterns. It was originally created to treat borderline personality disorder, but it has proven to help anyone who has difficulty regulating their emotions or preventing self-sabotaging behaviors.
The keyword for DBT is “and”: I’m having that negative thought again, and I am safe in this moment. I feel ashamed about my past and I am alive in the present.
This conjunction of opposing views is to help fuse change and acceptance. Using this word, you can separate yourself from the troublesome thought that you see happening. This helped me realize I am not my thoughts. I am more than my thoughts. I don’t have to time travel every time a bad memory comes my way; I can see it and still be okay in this moment, here, in the present.
A great podcast I found for DBT skills and information is DBT & Me. I listened to it on Spotify, but it is also available anywhere else you listen to your podcasts.
My therapist and I used these cards to delve deeper into DBT skills and definitions. Draw a few cards and choose which one you want to work on for a week, then spend the week being mindful of that topic. At the end of the week, write about what you’ve discovered about yourself in your journal.
2. Fake Argument
One of my big struggles revolves around confrontation. I avoid it at all costs. My partner once sent me this meme and we joked about how real this was for me that I earned the nickname Squash Cat:
My therapist gave me a homework assignment. She instructed me to establish two sides of a ridiculous debate for me and my partner, and then set a timer for 5 minutes, and let loose. We were to argue over which candy bar was better and why we were right, let our voices raise, and even let the laughter happen if it happened, just go for it — but as soon as the time stopped, I was to check in with my body and regulate my emotions again.
I put this one off for so long. I was so afraid. Purposefully put myself in the middle of one of my biggest fears? No thanks! I finally came around to the idea when my partner suggested we use the card game Superfight – which was literally made for “absurd arguments” – to break the ice before trying it solo.
The purpose of this fake argument was distress tolerance and emotion regulation. Distress tolerance is when you deliberately exercise your ability to handle stressful situations. Emotion regulation is having control of your emotional state. The timer allowed me to not only know that it would end but also to have a clear reminder to exert control over my heightened emotions. Practicing these two elements allows for more confidence that when a real argument or otherwise difficult situation occurs, you’ll remember your training.
3. Observe, not Absorb
For me, it can be triggering to be around someone who is angry, frustrated, or otherwise negative feelings, without beginning to blame myself or create situations where I need to be the one to fix it. This exercise helped build my tolerance to those facial cues so I could recognize someone else’s sadness as theirs, not my own.
My therapist gave me another helpful emotion regulation homework assignment involving watching a movie. More specifically, talking through a movie.
The assignment was to watch a movie — she suggested one that involved real-world situations — and to name the emotions on people’s faces, without getting emotionally sucked into the drama of the movie. This is another practice in keeping control over your inner peace and safety when confronted with outside factors.
4. Willing Hands
I found this technique from the podcast The Skillful Podcast on Spotify. This podcast is a real treasure! They talk about how useful DBT is for daily life and how the techniques can be applied by anyone, not specific to any one diagnosis. I agree with their belief that the DBT toolbox can change our lives if only more people knew of some of these skills.
To practice willing hands, place your palms up so that your wrists are facing the sky. The trick here is that your cardiovascular system senses danger when your hands are in fists and will send your body the signal that you’re in trouble; but when your wrists are facing up, it shows your body that you are safe. This is a great trick to use when you’re starting to feel a little anxious, or preparing for a difficult conversation so that you can combat the fight or flight mode.
This is the episode that I found this technique on, but all of their episodes are packed with interesting facts and great tools.
I often trip over my words when I try to set boundaries, or recall hurtful memories out loud. To keep my mind focused on the words I need to say, my therapist suggested I find the stim that helps me.
Stimming is usually associated with autism, but nearly everyone stims without realizing it sometimes. There are many ways to stim. If you’ve ever found yourself biting your nails, picking at your cuticles, pulling on split ends, or biting your pencil, especially while you are nervous or trying to talk about something uncomfortable, then you may benefit from finding a healthy stimming option.
Visual stims, like a sensory water toy, are great options. If you are a doodler, you can find a notebook and do a repetitive action, like loops or circles — something that doesn’t take a lot of brain power. The point is to help your mind speak clearly by distracting the restless anxiety that you’re feeling about the conversation. There are also fidget toys that come in all sorts of zany varieties. I like the bubble popper keychains, which I keep clipped to my purse for easy access.
Once I found my stim, I used it every time I went to therapy. It was essential for me to speak about my problems out loud. I even use it every time I have a difficult conversation with my partner.
I hope these resources and tips will help you take your step toward finding what will help you in your mental health journey. Therapy was a huge life changer for me. If you don’t feel like you need, or are ready for, therapy yet — then maybe listening to those podcasts and trying some of my therapist’s tricks will help you gain confidence when setting boundaries and being faced with stressful situations.