Therapy: It Isn’t What You Think

The biggest misconception about therapy that I hear is that it is going to be painful. Often client’s will report being reticent to initiate therapy or book their first appointment because they fear it is going to be unbearably painful. They envision having to re-tell and re-live the darkest, most vulnerable, most agonizing moments and stirring up all that settled dust and the overwhelming emotions that come with it. And I don’t mean just wincing pain, I mean, sobbing messes on the floor crippling pain. That’s the extreme…the other side of the spectrum is that they just don’t want to have to tell the same stories all over again and are exhausted before they even start. With those misconceptions, I wouldn’t want to be in therapy either. 

But it’s not that way! Or at least not with many therapists! There isn’t uncontrollable sobbing, punching of cushions, lying on the couch reliving your childhood pain in my practice. Imagine the surprise and relief when I tell clients that’s not how it’s going to go.

If telling a story the same way, from beginning to end, with all the details, was healing in itself, we wouldn’t need therapists. We would get to the end of our story with our best friend, have a good cry, and be healed. That’s now how it works because that’s not how the brain works, but many people think or hope that just getting to the end of their story during counselling sessions will be the magic elixir.

Our experiences are not just about the content of the event, they are also about the context of our life at the time, including personal history mixed with a cascade of emotions, a cocktail of chemicals we release, and accompanying physical sensation. We experience events through our nervous system as a whole which includes both our mind and our body. It makes sense then, that to heal those same things we need to include both using the neuroscience that informs us.

It is important to make sense of things and have insight on a cognitive level where we can initiate change, but that comes second to resolving events in our lives in the neurobiological way that we experience them. We can take all the knowledge and understanding in the world and feel frustrated because we still feel the same. I call this the hamster on a wheel -I understand, I get it, I know what to do,…but I can’t change how I feel so I try again which is like adding an espresso IV drip to the hamster.

Here’s an example. If I asked you to think about the saddest moment of your life. You would remember that experience and your brain would light up in all the same places it did when you experienced it the first time. You would feel the same emotions, thoughts and experience a similar physical state including a change in heart rate, respiration, and biochemistry (adrenaline, cortisol, etc). In addition, you would be reinforcing the neural connections around that event in your brain – the neurons that fired together initially and have held hands all this time become stronger, thicker, hold hands tighter and the event imprints even deeper. The result would be even more activation or overwhelm in your nervous system like filling up a cup of water and in effect, re-traumatization. As more layers are added in our lives, our cup begins to spill over and that’s when we see symptoms of depression, anxiety, panic attacks, insomnia, migraine headaches, autoimmune disease, gastrointestinal problems, etc. appear.

What If instead we could work with painful experiences in a way that was not overwhelming, created new neural connections and increased the regulation and health of your nervous system (which in turns increases health and resiliency emotionally, mentally and physically?) This is where neuroscience has become cool – because we can. SRT (Self Regulation Therapy) which I use, and other neuroscience based modalities work with the nervous system addressing trauma and overwhelming events where they are held, without reliving them and experiencing the same pain over and over again.

We still talk, but it’s not classic talk therapy. In a way it’s less frustrating because you’re not trying to outthink your own thoughts by will alone. You might be surprised that you leave a session feeling more grounded and relaxed or that you didn’t fall apart. We don’t run from feelings of discomfort and certainly therapy can feel uncomfortable, but not the writhing gut wrenching pain that most are afraid of. It can be gentle, settling, soothing, completing, and even fun and it can slow down that hamster like a spa day with some cucumber water.

Don’t let your fear of what you think therapy will be like scare you away from starting to do the work that can potentially change your life. Know that therapy can have some tears but that it also holds a lot of potential for laughter and joy. Find a qualified therapist that you like and feel comfortable with and that works in a way that makes sense to you and resonates with what your goals are. You can feel better sooner than you think, and it doesn’t have to be painful.

For more information on Self Regulation Therapy, visit

1 Comment
  1. Great synopsis Tara! Well done would like to use it when I finally finish Judy

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