Do you struggle to make social connections? Are you wracked by a anxiety, self-doubt, or a fear that you will never find love? Or perhaps you worry that you’ll never achieve success in life?
Questions and issues like these can plague even the most confident people – and when it comes to finding the answers to these deep-seated concerns, many turn to therapy… lots of very expensive and time-consuming therapy.
In 2019 alone, spending on mental health treatment and services had reached a staggering $225 billion in the US alone – and by 2022 more than a third of Americans admitted that they’d had to stop therapy because they could no longer afford it.
So what happens if you find yourself in the troubling territory of desperately needing help with life’s many complications – but without the resources to pay for a $200-a-session professional?
That’s where celebrity psychotherapist Owen O’Kane comes in with his new book, How to Be Your Own Therapist – a step-by-step crash course that helps you to help yourself with a simple series of exercises that can bring about the same inner calm that a professional therapist would charge you thousands to achieve.
And, it takes just ten minutes a day.
Celebrity psychologist Owen O’Kane is demystifying pricey therapists’ most useful tools to help you become your own therapist – and save thousands of dollars in the process
Owen, an international best-selling author with more than 25 years of experience in mental health care and a wealth of celebrity clients, has demystified therapists’ magic so that you can put their most effective tools to use in your own life.
Actor Benedict Cumberbatch says of Owen’s guide: ‘Anyone looking to understand how therapy can help them help themselves should look no further.’
Owen’s no-jargon book draws on a range of therapy techniques from mindfulness, cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) and interpersonal therapy, to create a toolbox for everyday life.
His goal is to empower people with the confidence to be their own therapist with smart, short techniques throughout the day which can form healthier perspectives and let you ditch harmful thought patterns.
In the first of a three-part series that breaks down the essentials in Owen’s toolbox, the mental health expert reveals the essential first steps to becoming your own therapist.
STEP ONE: START WITH YOUR STORY
Everyone experiences hard times, no matter how perfect their life might look. Your story will have many hidden treasures that help you understand who you are and how you can live a fuller life. Threaded throughout your story will be darkness and light, failure and success, loss and redemption, hopelessness and hope.
Owen has been endorsed by A-list actor Benedict Cumberbatch, who said of the psychotherapist’s new book: ‘Anyone looking to understand how therapy can help them help themselves should look no further’
The events of your life are like the pieces of a jigsaw puzzle. As you begin to fit the pieces together, you eventually reach a point where you can see the whole picture. That whole picture represents all there is to know about who you are, and why you are that way. For example, a child who has been left alone a lot by their parents may develop a fear of abandonment in adulthood.
Your story is the foundation work of therapy – looking at our core beliefs and learned ways of behaving and dealing with emotions and understanding that you can unlearn those patterns which don’t serve you well.
That self-awareness will help you feel safer, calmer and more at ease when you’re feeling down, or scared, or out of control. It will also help you bounce back quicker. The story of your life will lead you to your ‘Aha!’ moments. These are moments of sudden insight. Your story is your power.
‘When I first went to therapy in my early twenties, I thought I was pretty ‘sorted.’ I was about to come out as gay and I thought talking to someone beforehand seemed like a sensible idea. In the first session, I started to tell my story to the therapist in a very mechanical, rehearsed way. It was all fine. I was fine. My life was fine. My family were fine. Everything was fine, fine, fine!’ Owen explains.
‘The therapist paused and very calmly, said to me: ‘You tell me you’re fine, but you look a little sad.’ And that was the end of being fine. I suddenly found myself crying. Of course, I wasn’t fine, and it was time to stop pretending. Not only was this a relief but it was also the beginning of a new understanding of myself.’
HOW TO TELL YOUR STORY
- Reflect on key events in each decade your life from infancy to present. Write one list for celebratory, positive and successful events and another for sad, difficult and negative moments. Be brutally honest and non-judgemental. It’s vital to be your authentic self because when the create an illusion that is not who we are, we weaken our position.
- Rather than categorizing them as ‘good’ and ‘bad’, try to welcome them and see them all as interesting because it’s incredibly liberating.
- Self-compassion is a key part of becoming your own therapist. You need to be comfortable with the fact that you – and everyone else – is flawed and everyone makes mistakes. So don’t persecute yourself and be kind to yourself.
- Examine the beliefs and rules that you created in childhood which got you accepted, noticed, loved, respected and so forth.
- Look at whether these learnings still serve you in adulthood and make lists where you use words like ‘must’ and ‘should.’ How can you be more flexible? Instead of ‘I should always please people’, try: ‘It’s not possible to please everyone.’ It’s also useful to step back and look at your whole life story.
- Keep a note, maybe with a different color pen, of the feelings that emerged when recalling your important life events. Underneath the feeling there might be some new information or an ‘Aha!’ moment. If not, being aware of the feelings, and asking the question, ‘I wonder what that’s about?’ is enough. The awareness will come. For example, an irritation with something might come to mean avoidance.
- Share your story with a genuine pal. They are usually someone who is: P: Present A: Accepting L: Loving
STEP 2: LISTEN TO YOUR BODY
There’s an expression: the body keeps the score. This means that when we endure heartache, loss, trauma or adversity, the pain from these experiences is often held in the body. The body will always be a guide, and will always lead you to where you need to be. The problem is that it’s often hard to think your way out of distress when the body is in a state of alarm. The key is often to deactivate the alarm before trying to use other tools or techniques.
The mental healthcare expert teaching YOU how to become your own therapist
With over 25 years’ experience working in physical and mental health, Owen, who runs a private practice in London, is an internationally-leading speaker on mental wellness which has seen him become a best-selling author with his breakthrough book Ten to Zen and its sequel Ten Times Happier. His books are now translated in over 30 languages globally.
Growing up in Belfast in Northern Ireland during The Troubles and struggling, as a Catholic, with his sexuality as a gay man, he knows first-hand what anxiety is.
‘I grew up with bombs, bullets and bullying and learned a lot about the mechanisms of anxiety from living in a constant state of hyper vigilance when I was growing up,’ says Owen, 53, who is clear that his book isn’t a substitute for one-one-therapy.
But he confidently and unapologetically claims it will help any reader who picks it up.
Not only that, but Owen’s 10 years working with terminally ill people meant he also learnt so much wisdom and valuable lessons about what makes a better life and about getting the best from life.
Sometimes a life event can activate these memories physiologically, and they manifest as bodily pain and tension. Just like emotions, that pain can serve as a barometer for how we’re doing, even if consciously we’ve not acknowledged the depth of our distress. Think about when you hear people say, ‘I have a lump in my throat,’ or ‘My chest is pounding’ or ‘I feel like my head’s going to explode.’ Research shows that many (not all) physical health issues have some psychological component. So the pain of that memory needs acknowledgement and release.
Owen is also an EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitization Reprocessing) therapist and worked with one a young woman suffering from severe PSTD who had been tortured in her home country because of sexual orientation. ‘During treatment she started to cry and protect her arms. She was clearly in pain. When I asked her about protecting her arms while crying, she looked a little puzzled. She had no recollection of doing that.
‘Then she rolled up her jumper to reveal multiple cigarette burns. While her mind couldn’t remember these being inflicted upon her, her body remembered and her distress was expressing itself in the pain she was feeling on her arms, a reliving of the pain she’d felt during torture,’ he explains.
‘It’s an extreme example but it shows that, if you are holding on to negative emotions or not dealing with issues in your life, they can get held in the body. It’s always worth bearing in mind the role psychological difficulties like stress, loss, emotional pain and trauma have to play in bringing about physical health issues in those already at risk, or exacerbating pre-existing symptoms.’
Under stress or anxiety, the body goes into is ‘fight or flight’ response to a perceived threat which activates the amygdala, or ‘fear center’ of the brain, and leads to the production of the stress hormone cortisol, an increase in glucose levels, increased heart rate, and an increase in blood flow to the muscles in the arms and legs,
In this state, you are not able to be rational nor reflective and so it is impossible to begin your therapy until your body returns to a more relaxed state.
HOW TO RELAX YOUR BODY
- Take a couple of slow depth breaths to relax and feel the stress drop off.
- Imagine a time when you felt calm, relaxed and at peace in your life.
- Then do a body scan. Put your hand on your stomach or chest and note what you feel. Ask: how is my body today? Allow your mind to scan your body, head to toe, simply noting what you find there. Is there tension? Does it hurt anywhere?
- Maybe you discover an unexpected ache or tingling. It’s all fine, whatever you discover, because it’s better to be aware than unaware. It’s about beginning a deeper understanding and awareness of your body and mind connection.
STEP THREE: YOU ARE NOT YOUR THOUGHTS
People think they are their thoughts. You are not these thoughts. Most of your thoughts are just old patterns of beliefs and thinking that you’ve inherited, taken on board and never challenged. That doesn’t mean that they’re true. It doesn’t mean that they define who you are.
Neuroscientists estimate that we have between 60,000 to 80,000 thoughts a day. But thinking itself isn’t the problem. The problem is that critical, catastrophic, self-deprecating or inflexible ways of thinking, and negative emotional responses, often become automatic. For example, if someone comes from a family with very critical parents, they may automatically think the worst of themselves and struggle with negative thoughts when they are in situations that mirror aspects of their childhood.
Your thoughts and your feelings are separate but interconnected, and they’re constantly communicating with each other. For example, if the rather unwelcome thought, ‘My partner doesn’t care about me,’ crops up in your mind, it will automatically create a feeling of sadness or something similar. Likewise, you may experience a sudden shift in your emotional state that leads to a catalogue of unhelpful thoughts.
Think of a time when you told yourself that you had to be perfect at something, and it didn’t go to plan. If you have (or had, at the time) inflexible beliefs around perfectionism, then the outcome may have, predictably, been negative, self-critical or self-deprecating thoughts. Your emotions will have been dominated by a sense of not being good enough, of having failed or disappointed others.
Your rules and beliefs will have created a thought and emotion distress response. On the other hand, an imperfect outcome can be managed with compassionate thoughts, for example, ‘I did my best and I can learn from this for next time.’ Emotionally, that’s easier to manage.
HOW TO RESTRUCTURE YOUR THOUGHTS
- Be alert to thoughts that make you feel distressed; they tend to be fear-driven and part of an unhealthy thinking pattern. They draw us in and snowball.
- If someone criticizes us, we automatically think we’re a failure and treat this as a fact and this leads to feeling like a failure. But remember this is often just ‘noise’ and not fact.
- Allow a negative or self-critical thought to pass like a cloud and tell yourself that you can only try your best.
- Once you’ve recognized unhelpful thoughts, examine the evidence. For example, if you’re thinking: ‘I’ll never get this job,’ while writing an application, ask yourself, what is the evidence? Then replace the thought with a more helpful alternative.
- Talk to yourself like you would your best-friend. Change your internal tone and language. Don’t use words such as: ‘You are an idiot.’ Instead, say to yourself: ‘I did my best and will do so again.’
- This isn’t an instant fix – it’s practice to repeat time and again.