My fingers were curled and clenched around the wheel and my arm muscles felt tight as my foot tapped the pedal and the car inched along the interstate. I was going to my first individual counseling session. Nervous, I had planned to arrive early—I was unsure of what to expect and didn’t want to be late for such a new experience. Yet here I was, stuck behind an accident and a host of emergency vehicles.
I used to think of counseling as something to save for serious problems. The word made me think of couples on the brink of divorce, or an individual no longer able to cope with daily life. But in the last several years I’ve come to realize just how normal counseling is—and how helpful it can be, even if you think you don’t need it.
I had decided to meet with a therapist because I’d been catching myself having outbursts in response to everyday stresses. If something got in the way of my schedule and my plans—like my husband getting sick or another task getting added to my list of responsibilities—I’d sometimes become paralyzed with anxiety or erupt with anger. I began carrying a lot of tension in my upper back which caused headaches. Though the stresses were normal, I didn’t like the way I was responding to them.
That day of my first counseling session I walked in a half hour late. I felt terrible, was tense, and even had tears streaming down my face—I was feeling overwhelmed by life and guilty for being late. The therapist kindly met with me anyway, walking me through some calming techniques that involved deep breathing, closing my eyes, and relaxing my body. He also taught me something he called the ICE method, which is a three step process to help neutralize the “emotional charge” I felt when certain events happened. I found that process incredibly helpful. On my drive home I felt strangely calm.
In hindsight, the way I was dealing with things wasn’t healthy. I needed to learn ways to calm myself down so that my outbursts would not affect my children or my marriage. I thought I was totally justified in ranting about my stress to my husband. If I got angry it seemed to me that I was being perfectly reasonable—after all, it was just my way of decompressing from whatever stress I was facing! Through counseling I came to see that when I was overwhelmed by strong emotions like anxiety or anger I was not able to think clearly, communicate clearly, or listen well to those around me.
The night after my first therapy session, my husband and I were able to have a long and deep conversation about our lives and what we might need to change to help me feel less overwhelmed. Instead of getting upset like I often did, I stayed calm—and our conversation was so much more constructive. It made me realize how my reactivity had been more of a problem than I’d realized.
Since beginning therapy, the upper back tension and headaches I used to get have largely gone away. And my husband and I have gone from arguing a couple times a week to very rarely. Even though little has changed in our life circumstances, I am much better equipped to handle what comes my way. My attitude towards counseling has changed, and so has my life.