In order to fight the stigma around mental health and to inspire people to have their mental illness treated professionally, Alyssa Shepherd describes her experience of psychotherapy. She spent a summer focusing on herself and receiving intensive psychotherapy to treat her PTSD and the depression and anxiety that came as a result of this underlying illness. While many are encouraged to seek help for their illnesses, the enigma of what these treatments might involve is often a deterrent. Alyssa candidly sheds a light on this mysterious subject, describing her treatments, which were, specifically, hypnotherapy and Cognitive Behavioural Therapy.
In June 2017, I began a course of treatment and psychotherapy in order to combat my diagnosis of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), and the moderate depression and anxiety, which had manifested as a result of this. I went to see my therapist two, sometimes three, times a week over the summer, and underwent a variety of intensive forms of psychotherapy to learn how to manage and cope with my mental illness. Although daunting at first, these forms of psychotherapy have truly helped me to learn how to manage my PTSD, depression and anxiety, in order to live a greater quality of life. I am a firm believer that many people who struggle to cope with their mental health often delay seeking treatment because they are either afraid of, or sceptical of, the many different forms of psychotherapy which exist to combat mental illnesses. I am a firm believer of this because, well, that was exactly how I felt before I began my treatment. In order to further open up the important conversation about mental health, I therefore wish to share my experience of psychotherapy, and how it has helped me get back to feeling like my old self again.
Firstly, it was important for my therapist to explain to me what PTSD exactly was, and how her proposed course of treatment would help target the symptoms of my illness. PTSD is a psychiatric disorder that often occurs after experiencing or witnessing life-threatening events, serious accidents, natural disasters, physical or sexual assault or terrorist incidents – to name but a few. Most survivors of such trauma will return to a state of normalcy after a period of time, but some will suffer stress reactions which may get increasingly worse. PTSD sufferers often relive the trauma when confronted with a traumatic trigger or reminder of the incident, or through nightmares. This can often lead to difficulty sleeping, feelings of isolation, estrangement, irritability and being easily startled. Personally, traumatic triggers can range from the sirens of an ambulance to a high-pitched squeal or scream.
The first form of psychotherapy by which my therapist proposed to treat my PTSD was clinical hypnotherapy. I was very sceptical at first - mainly because I associated hypnotherapy with stage hypnosis, mesmerists and fancy pocket-watches. However, clinical hypnotherapy is very different to stage hypnosis, where the subject does not appear to know what exactly is happening to or around them. With clinical hypnotherapy, you are aware of everything the whole time. You remain entirely in control, but at the same time reach a very deep state of relaxation. During this relaxed state, your subconscious mind is open and receptive to any suggestions given to you – provided that they are suggestions that you wish to take effect. When I was put under hypnosis, my therapist guided me through the traumatic event that caused my PTSD, in order to normalise this experience, which I had so deeply buried. I tried my best to suppress the incident because, when I did think of it, I worried about what I had not done correctly in that moment, what more I could have done, and about what people now thought of my actions from that event. However, in the heightened state of awareness that I experienced whilst hypnotised, my therapist instead helped me to relive the incident, and focus on what I did do correctly. The feelings of low self-worth and, unfortunately, self-loathing that I connected with this incident and carried into my daily life, were therefore slowly broken down and refuted repeatedly. Through continual exposure to the event, the ‘trauma’ I associated with it soon began to diminish, to the extent that, if confronted with a traumatic trigger, the panic and anxiety that I used to experience would be neither as frequent nor as intense.
The second approach by which my therapist sought to treat not only my PTSD, but also the depression and anxiety, was Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT). I had heard of CBT once or twice before, but had never really fully understood what it entailed. Quite simply, CBT is a way of discussing how you think about yourself, other people or the world, and how your actions affect your thoughts and feelings. CBT teaches and empowers those who suffer from mental illnesses to quieten the mind and body, to have more clarity in thought processes and therefore make improved and more rational decisions, and to feel more positive. With CBT, my therapist helped me to break down what I deemed to be overwhelming problems into smaller and separate parts. I was then shown how to analyse these different parts to figure out whether they were unrealistic or unhelpful, and eventually how to challenge these limiting thoughts and behaviours. In these sessions, I was unsure about whether I would actually be able to apply these skills outside of the therapy room, in the situations, which I find most terrifying. However, it has amazed me how I am now – subconsciously – able to implement these skills to manage the negative automatic thoughts produced by my anxiety, and to stop them from having a destructive impact on my life. CBT has helped me to realise that thoughts are just that – thoughts. They are not facts. Where, before, I would not be able to last one hour in a crowded bar or club without having to make up an excuse to leave or, even worse, have a full-scale panic attack because of my anxiety, I am now able to stay for an extended period of time because I am equipped with the skills to challenge and overcome the crippling negative thoughts which used to perpetually circle my head. I believe the most important message that I have drawn from my experience of CBT is that negative thoughts and behaviours produced by mental illnesses are, at some point in our lives, learned, but they can be just as easily un-learned, with the help of CBT.