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Space not Stress

Space not Stress

Yes. We all know about stress. On TV, the radio, online, and in magazines, we are frequently told how bad stress is, that the world is more stressful now than before, and that we must deal with stress to be “healthy”. In fact, there are so many articles and studies telling us how stressed we are that it can be stressful just to wrap our heads around it. We all need some stress in our lives, and some of us “thrive” on more stressful circumstances than others. But for all of us there is a breaking point. The stress becomes overwhelming and impacts how we work, how we are with our families, or how we are with ourselves.

So, let’s think about stress in a different way, and how to tap into it. I’d like you to consider stress and space. The space within you, the space around you, the space for you, and perhaps even outer space.

Think about a recent stressful situation at work. How did you feel? Were you being asked to do more in a shorter space of time? Were you hurried? Rushed? Did you feel like you weren’t doing a good job? Or wouldn’t be able to? Did you feel confused? Frustrated? Small? Helpless? Was it noisy, either in your head or in the office? Was there paper piling around you? Did it feel like the walls were closing in? Did you feel trapped? Did you feel like you needed to escape? Did it feel like you couldn’t? Did it feel like your boss was looming over you? Did it feel like pressure was coming at you from all sides? How was your breathing?

How is your breathing now, while you think about this stressful moment?


At some point, you may have experienced some or all of what I’ve just described. The next time you do, try to think about these feelings in relation to space—not having enough of it—and find a way to create space for the feelings.


We need space.

Space allows us to breathe. Your rib cage literally provides space for your lungs to expand. The space around us helps us feel comfortable and like we belong. Space allows us to be ourselves, to show people who we are, and what we can do. Having space to dream allows us to see beyond what is happening, to have something to work towards.


Remember your stressful moment? How are you feeling about it since you started thinking about space? How is your breathing? Is it deeper? Slower?


Do you feel your thoughts clearing? Your mind wondering and wandering?


This is what it feels like to have space. Space reduces stress.


How can you apply this idea of space to your stress?

Breathe. When you feel stressed, recall the space that your lungs take up. The space that they need to keep you alive. And then focus on your breathing and slow it down. Take deep breaths.

Make space. Enjoy your space. At work, feel like your desk or office is yours. Hang a picture, or several, if that’s what you want. Place your computer, files, and phone where you want them. Arrange the space so that it is an enjoyable one for you to be in. Make it was you want it. This is the space that you inhabit for many, many hours.

Find space. Think of ways you can find space in a stressful moment: during a particularly stressful project, every day at the same time I went to the same coffee shop and ordered a coffee and a pastry. I savoured those few moments before returning to the stress. For you it might be chocolate, a walk around the block, or something else that you enjoy. But find that thing and remember to do it.

Take space. What about those situations where you feel like you can’t leave? Allow yourself to take some space. Say “no, I can’t do that right now”. Say “I can get back to you.” Say “I need to go to the washroom,” even if you just spend five minutes standing in the stall. Ask for help, and take it when offered.

Look into space. When that stressful moment has passed, on your way home or on the weekend, look out the window or into your imagination. Ask yourself these questions: why am I working? Why am I working where I work? Can I continue to work there? Do I enjoy my work? What do I enjoy about my work? Allow the answers to give you a reason to be at work, to use your skills, to do a good job, to enjoy it, and a reason to accept the stress that comes with it. If these answers are not apparent, consider coming to talk to me.

Need a reminder? Download this wallet-sized or post-card sized version to help you take space when you need it.

Dedication to Therapy: Is there an emoji for that?

Dedication to Therapy: Is there an emoji for that?

I’ve read this article several times now and it still makes my blood boil. From the headline to the conclusion, the author seems to have entered into a text message-based therapeutic endeavour with only the faintest interest. Though she admits to taking a half-hearted approach to the therapy, her major complaint seems to be with the therapist herself; some one who uses “motivational quotes” and “emojis”. Imagine using emojis over text! And while my immediate impulse is to write a scathing rebuttal to the author in defense of all therapists, perhaps the article is better served as a starting point to discuss the concept of dedication to therapy.

Numerous studies have indicated that the key component of therapy is the client-therapist relationship itself. That is, the relationship between a client and their therapist, more than any other factor, is likely to lead a client to progress, heal, and transform. But, such a relationship is impossible without dedication from the client to not just attending each session, but also to throwing themselves fully into the work. To dedicating themselves to the therapy. To dedicating themselves to themselves.

Dedication implies buy-in. Dedication implies effort. Dedication implies taking time. What this article suggests, about both the author and the platform is that none of those was present. The author speaks of being “half-hearted”, entering into it because she “doesn’t have the time”, and “doubting what kind of therapist believes they can solve…mental health issues…with the most surface form of communication.” In short, it would appear that this relationship was doomed for failure from the beginning.

Psychoanalysts, at least the few that I have met, prefer to see their clients several times per week. While this may seem onerous in 21st century Vancouver, for the wealthy, at-leisure, early 20th century elites of Vienna and London, this would have been very doable. Sometimes, I wish I could see my clients that frequently. Often, sessions end just when a client is hitting their stride or a crucial issue is being explored. Somewhere, straddling the poles of several in-person sessions a week and 30 minutes of texting, there must be a balance.

When clients seek therapy, their struggles are all about relating. How they relate to the world, to others, or to themselves. Therapists guide their clients, but this can only be done with the entirety of the client. Not just by reading their words. Not just by listening to them. Not just by observing them. But by letting all aspects of them impact the therapist. This requires the client to be present. To be fully engaged. To be dedicated to the process.

The importance of this dedication was keenly illustrated to me when negotiating an affordable fee with therapist I once saw. When I said that I could not afford his fee, he asked me how much I could I afford. I was unsure. He then asked if I went out to restaurants, bars etc. I nodded. And, he asked me how much money I spend on that every week? “Do you not think,” he continued, “that your mental health is worth at least that much?” And he was right. The same can be said of time. How much time do you think your mental health is worth? (Really, ask yourself this).

Therapy is not supposed to be easy. If it were, therapists would not spend years and years training and undergoing self-examination.

In fairness to the author, I doubt that the therapy-by-text platform would have provided her with change she seems to be looking for, even if she was committed to the therapy. The relationship between a client and therapist requires time and closeness, and texting, by its very nature, creates distance. It is difficult enough to convey what we mean and feel when we are in the same room as another person and we have all available senses with which to communicate. But, to be limited to unpunctuated, short text messages is never going to be sufficient, with or without emojis. Some studies have indicated the usefulness of text messaging to complement therapy and facilitate self-reporting, reminders, etc., but none of the them recommended text messages be the main component in on-going treatment. Needless to say, I do not offer text-based therapy. :).



Phenomenology is a notoriously rigorous discipline in which therapists set aside their judgements, pre-conceptions and interpretations to gain access to the full, human experience of their clients. Within this context, clients are encouraged to EXPRESS their struggles, EXPLORE their feelings and understanding, and TRANSFORM their experiences in a manner that resonates with who they are.

EXPRESS. What is going on and how is it for you?

Guiding the client to EXPRESS their lived experience allows the therapist to gain a picture of the client’s reality, and also often illuminates aspects of an issue that the client perhaps had not yet realized or had forgotten. Once the reality of the situation has been established, the therapist asks the client what it is they feel, what their spontaneous reaction is to what they’ve just expressed. Do they feel like running away? Do they feel like exploding? This reaction gives insight into the client’s raw, visceral feelings and indicates a general direction in which they wish to go.

EXPLORE. Why is this?

The aim of EXPLORATION is to take the reality and emotions that emerged in the EXPRESSION and place them into a broader context of the client’s experience. Together, the therapist and the client attempt to understand the emotions and explore what is not understood. These questions are aimed at allowing the client to decide how this sits with them—honestly, deeply, truly—and what they really want.

TRANSFORM. How do I change?

Depending on the answers or decisions made by the client in their EXPLORATION, together with the therapist, the client works out how to go about resolving, changing, or letting a situation be. Developing an action plan, practicing a confrontation, and considering the potential implications allow the client to prepare themselves for their TRANSFORMATION and deal with any consequences.

Having EXPRESSED the depth of their feelings, fully EXPLORED their emotions and their understanding and decided on a course of action, a client can TRANSFORM their situation and ultimately themselves into a person who can stand behind their decisions and actions because they will have made them consciously, authentically, and freely.

My understanding of the existential-phenomenological approach is based on the work of Dr. Alfried Längle, who developed the method of Personal Existential Analysis, on which this is based. For further reading see: http://laengle.info/userfile/doc/PEA—EP-2003.pdf