Being self-aware and having the capability to think and feel emotions with clarity and understanding is part and parcel of being human. Unlike animals, our thought processes rely on far more than instinct alone.
Because of this, there is scope for the way we think to become a problem and to affect our emotions. If we go back a few hundred years we can see that psychological issues were approached with fear and unnecessarily invasive treatments. Thanks to the evolution of science and technology we now have a clearer understanding of the human brain and are able to look at these issues in a different way.
Today, the art of talking therapies such as counselling are used to help people come to terms with any problems they are facing, with an ultimate aim of overcoming them.
On this page:
What is counselling?
Counselling falls under the umbrella term ‘talking therapies’ and allows people to discuss their problems and any difficult feelings they encounter in a safe, confidential environment. The term can mean different things to different people, but in general it is a process people seek when they want to change something in their lives or simply explore their thoughts and feelings in more depth.
A counsellor is not there to sit you down and tell you what to do - instead they will encourage you to talk about what's bothering you in order to uncover any root causes and identify your specific ways of thinking. The counsellor may then look to create a plan of action to either help you reconcile your issues or help you to find ways of coping.
Counselling does not come in a cookie-cutter format and each session is generally tailored to the individual. There is flexibility within this type of therapy that allows for a variety of counselling formats, including:
- Face-to-face - This is when you make an appointment with a counsellor to see them in person, usually at their practice. Face-to-face sessions are one of the more popular therapy formats because they provide an opportunity for you to react to any emotions that arise there and then.
- Individual or group - You may choose to see a counsellor by yourself, or if you prefer you could join a counselling group with people experiencing similar issues. Going to a group counselling session can be helpful if you want to discuss your issues with people who are going through similar problems and you may even gain yourself a support network. Alternatively, you may wish to see a counsellor alone to preserve your privacy and concentrate on your own feelings.
- Telephone counselling - For some, telephone counselling offers a helpful alternative to face-to-face counselling. This involves talking to your counsellor over the phone instead of in person. This form of counselling can be particularly useful for those too busy to attend face-to-face sessions, and can be carried out in the comfort of your own home. This format also tends to be more flexible and can potentially reduce waiting list times.
- Online counselling - Some people prefer not to physically speak to a counsellor at all, utilizing technology and emailing their counsellor instead. This form of counselling allows you to take the time to think through what you wish to discuss, and many find the act of physically writing their issues down cathartic. Online counselling also offers you the chance to protect your anonymity.
What can counselling help with?
Counselling can be useful for anyone who wants to explore the way they're thinking or feeling further, as well as anyone experiencing a problem or issue they are keen to resolve. People may choose to speak to a counsellor because they feel they cannot speak to their other half/friends/family about such personal issues, or they may simply wish to speak to a professional with an objective viewpoint.
Common subjects that can be addressed within counselling include the following:
Wherever there is a physical addiction to a substance or activity - there is likely to be a psychological addiction too. Counselling aims to relieve the psychological addiction by exploring the root cause while helping to develop new ways of thinking.
Losing a loved one is a difficult event in anyone's life. The loss can bring up a wide range of emotions including guilt and anger. Some people benefit from speaking openly to a counsellor about their feelings to help ease the process and resolve any remaining issues they may have.
Being the victim of any form of abuse, whether it's verbal or physical can lead to issues that may affect you all of your life. Counselling can offer victims the chance to seek help from authorities (if appropriate) as well as addressing the psychological repercussions in a safe environment.
Suffering from a long-term illness such as cancer or dementia can turn anyone's world upside down. Counselling can help sufferers come to terms with their illness while offering emotional support and coping mechanisms.
Mental health issues
Suffering from a mental health issue such as schizophrenia or depression can feel incredibly isolating. Counselling looks to discuss the feelings that arise in conjunction with these kinds of mental health issues as well as overcome any personal challenges or frustrations.
Covering all types of relationships, counselling can be used to discuss issues within families, friendships and couples. Problems could involve anything from a poor relationship with a parent through to an abusive relationship.
Whether you've been involved in an accident or you have been the victim of abuse, the psychological impact of trauma can last years after the event itself. In a counselling session trauma victims are encouraged to explore their feelings regarding the incident and look into how these could be resolved or changed.
Feelings of stress, anxiety and low self-esteem are becoming all too common in today's society. Counselling can offer practical advice for overcoming these kinds of issues as well as allowing you the space to vent your frustrations and feelings.
How can counselling help?
The way counselling can help will depend on the person receiving the treatment. For many, the fact that counselling offers a safe and confidential environment to speak in is all it takes. In life, what we say to others can sometimes have a knock-on effect, altering relationships and the way people see each other. Counselling eliminates this problem and offers you the space and freedom to explore your own thoughts with an unbiased party.
While counsellors may not give you concrete advice or a checklist of things to do to feel better, what they will do is help you uncover your own insight and understanding of your problems providing you with the tools which will help you to resolve them on your own.
In the majority of cases, a single session will not be enough to help overcome any issues you're facing. Counselling is a journey, and it takes time and consistency to work effectively. Because of this, many people opt for regular counselling sessions to make the most of the process.
Counselling can help you understand yourself better and the way you think, which will ultimately help you develop a clearer understanding of your problems. The more armed with information you are, the easier it gradually becomes to navigate your way through any difficulties you are facing so that eventually you can come out the other side feeling more positive. Counselling can also help you understand other people's point of view better, which can shed light onto the way you interpret words or actions.
Types of therapy
When it comes to counselling there are a range of different approaches, or therapies that can be used. The type of therapy used will depend on your counsellor's preferences, the issues you are facing and what type of person you are. Most counsellors won't decide on a therapy type until they have found out more about you and the way you think.
The following examples briefly outline some of the most commonly used therapies in counselling:
Taking an alternative approach to counselling, art therapy encourages clients to use artistic methods to communicate their issues as well as words. This may be in the form of a painting, a sculpture or even a simple drawing. The aim of art therapy is to examine the resulting pieces of art and to interpret their meaning.
The principle idea behind behavioural therapy is that our behaviour is learnt and can essentially be unlearnt. This leads behavioural therapy to focus more on the present as opposed to looking back to the past. This type of therapy is therefore best used with those looking to change their behaviour - for example sufferers of addiction or those with a phobia.
The way we think often leads to changes in our behaviour, and cognitive therapy looks to reconcile issues where they begin - in our thoughts. The therapy looks to address any skewed ways of thinking that may be occurring, and eventually aims to replace them with healthier, more positive thought patterns.
Cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT)
CBT looks to combine both cognitive therapy and behavioural therapy in order to tackle the thought process and the resulting behaviour. Focussing on the present, CBT is a practical therapy that aims to break down problems into smaller, more manageable issues. This therapy is especially useful for those with more specific problems as it addresses each emotion separately.
Eye movement desensitisation and reprocessing (EMDR)
EMDR is typically used to treat issues that originated from trauma, however it is starting to be used more widely for issues such as depression and anxiety. The therapy involves recalling the distressing event/feeling while following the therapist’s finger as it moves from side to side. The aim is to reduce the intensity of these memories over time.
The humanistic approach is holistic in style, looking at factors such as free will, creativity and human potential. The therapy type encourages self exploration, with many varieties focusing on the 'here and now'. Therapies that fall under this umbrella include Human Givens therapy, person-centred therapy and Gestalt therapy.
One of the oldest therapies used in psychology, it was Freud who founded the psychoanalytic technique. The therapy takes a different approach to behavioural and cognitive therapies as it perceives our thoughts to be out of our conscious control. Instead, psychoanalysis believes any psychological issues stem from childhood and need to be addressed in order to be resolved.
For a more in-depth look at the types of therapy used in counselling - please see our Therapies page.
What to expect from counselling
If you have decided to try counselling, you might be feeling anxious about your first session. Making the decision to get help and address the issues you are facing is an important first step and should be commended. Knowing what to expect from a counselling session should help you feel more prepared and less nervous about your first appointment.
In your first session it is likely that your counsellor will ask you some questions in order to gain an understanding of what's worrying you and the way your thought processes work. All of the information obtained here will be used to help you in future sessions.
Some questions your counsellor may ask include:
- Why are you seeking counselling? - You will most likely be asked what it is that has brought you here. This is your opportunity to discuss exactly why you are there and what you hope to gain from counselling.
- What is your current situation and personal history? - It is important to let your counsellor know your current situation, this includes any day-to-day issues you are facing and even your work and home life. Discussing your personal history will give your counsellor a chance to understand more about you as a person and why these issues may have occurred.
- What symptoms are you experiencing? - Whether these are physical or psychological, it is important to discuss any symptoms with your counsellor.
It is advised that you be honest and open when answering these questions in order to get the most out of your counselling sessions.
During your counselling experience you should aim to build a trusting relationship with your counsellor so that you feel safe and confident discussing your worries. If for any reason you do not feel comfortable talking about your problems with your counsellor it is perfectly acceptable to look for another counsellor.
Your counsellor should establish some clear boundaries when you begin your sessions that cover the following:
- dates and times of the counselling sessions
- confidentiality agreement
- clarification of the professional nature of the counsellor/client relationship
- how and when the counsellor can be contacted outside of sessions.
The counselling process
Counselling often requires you to discuss upsetting emotions and painful memories. Bringing up these thoughts can feel difficult to start with and, initially, you may feel worse. This process is necessary to move forward and in time, you should start to feel better.
To get the most from your counselling sessions you should aim to make them consistent. Some sessions will feel more helpful than others, but it is important to realise that everything your counsellor is doing is designed to help you in the long run, even if it doesn't feel like it in the beginning.
It is also worth remembering that counselling is not a quick fix and that your counsellor will not be able to tell you what to do. The counselling process requires a strong relationship between you and your counsellor and a degree of effort on your part - together these two elements create a successful method to help you resolve your issues.