Marissa arrives with fatigue underlying her eyes. This is her first session here.
“Would you like coffee or tea?”
I pull out several mugs and motion towards the coffee pot. Choosing coffee, she adds creamer and stirs. Gripping our warm mugs we both ease into conversation. She settles rigidly into the love seat and her fingers twist the blanket on the arm of the seat. Glancing quickly around the office her gaze comes back to me.
“First of all this is a safe space,” I say Everything shared here is confidential. “It is my job to listen well and to share with you what I am hearing, to ask questions that help further your understanding of yourself and your growth. It is my job to help you get where you are going.”
Marissa nods, and I sense that she is eager to get started. I am too, though I need to lay a solid foundation of understanding and trust for us to build on.
“You bring a topic or direction to each session and I will keep us on topic. I will steer us towards your goal. I will be your brainstorming partner, and help ensure you have structure in place and accountability. I will look for mindsets that may be holding you back.
I watch Marissa’s expression for any evidence of discomfort. I will register her body language, throughout our time together, adjusting my questions, tone and demeanor. My favorite teacher compared coaching to dancing, speaking to the awareness a coach has of their client, and the flow, the give and take, that is created in an ideal session.
“Do you have any questions or concerns?”
Marissa shakes her head, indicating that she doesn’t. Soon we dip into the reasons for her visit.
“Well, I have a lot of stress in my life.” Marissa launches into the variables of her life, her words tumbling out so quickly that I just listen for awhile. She needs to be heard before anything else.
“I don’t know why but sometimes the anxiety just gets really bad. I feel panicky. It comes as a surprise usually; like, there is no good reason.”
“So you have a lot of stress in your life and sometimes it seems to bubble up and take you by surprise. What would you like to be different?”
“I don’t know.” She sighs loudly. The clock ticks softly into the silence.
“Can you tell me about the last time this happened?” Over the course of this session I believe she will lead me to the source of her stress, even though it is unknown to both of us now.
“Sure. Just yesterday. I was walking into a movie theater with my boyfriend and all of a sudden I just felt really stressed. There was no reason for me to feel bad at the theater. I should have been able to relax there. Michael is the person I can relax around.”
“So you felt you should have been able to relax but instead you were feeling really bad? What did that feel like physically?”
“My chest was tight. I felt sick to my stomach. I felt hot.”
Realizing the connection between mind and body is essential. Anxiety, depression, stress, and mental struggles play a large role in how our bodies work. In my sessions I call attention to this, when relevant. There is benefit in creating a relationship with our bodies. Often they alert us to something we do not yet understand. I ask a question leading Marissa to the frequency of her anxiety.
“Has this happened to you before?”
“Yeah, in high school. Then it didn’t happen for a few years. It’s happened several times in the last few months though.”
“So panicky feelings are popping back up in your life. What do you want us to figure out in this conversation today?”
“I just want my life to work. I don’t want to feel this stressed.”
“You want life to feel more manageable.
“How is work?”
We talk about work for awhile, but she explains that work is stable, sometimes even enjoyable. It is not the root of the panic attacks.
“My mom, she has to have surgery soon,” Marissa says.
I straighten in my seat.
“She will be fine. I’m sure. We are lucky they found the tumor so soon.”
“Luck and tumor aren’t often in the same sentence,” I observe.
“Oh, some people have it so much worse. I have a friend who is actually dying of cancer.”
“Wow, sitting outside your life, it seems like there are several major sources of stress there,” I say.
“I don’t let it effect me,” Marissa says, her chin tight and her face determined.
A recurring theme for those who are dealing with major stressors is that there is always something worse happening for someone else, so they are not allowed to feel upset about what they are going through. They can think about how people are starving, homeless, or dying. Just because someone, somewhere, may have it “worse” does not mean that each experience and accompanying emotion isn’t relevant, and often challenging. Focusing on comparisons is a diversion and an avoidance, perhaps a left over habit, ingrained from childhood, when many were told, “others have it worse.”
I can tell Marissa is getting stuck here.
“What do you do if you have a thought or experience that causes you discomfort?”
“Hmm…I just shove it aside.”
“Where do you put it?”
“I just put it in a corner of my mind and try to forget about it.”
“How does that affect you?”
“Everyone already has a lot of stress in there lives. I don’t want to add to it.”
“You protect other people by putting the stress in your life in a box, trying to forget about it?”
“Yeah. I take care of people.”
“You take care of others. That sounds important to you. Marissa, if your good friend had a friend that was dying, a mother that had cancer, a lot of work hours on her plate, and panic attacks starting to pop up, what advice would you give her?”
“I don’t think I would give her advice. I think I would take care of her. Maybe take her out for a good meal. Maybe cover a shift at work for her and listen to her talk.”
“Exactly. You wouldn’t tell her she should stuff it all in, would you?”
“Of course not!”
“It sounds like you are a great friend. How do you treat yourself?”
“I have higher standards for myself. Maybe they haven’t been very realistic.” Marissa’s brow unknots.
“When we began talking, you said you would like to have life work better and feel less stress. Have you had any thoughts about what might relieve some of the stress in your life?”
“I think now that the box in my mind where I put stress is overflowing. I should probably take off the lid a little.”
“What would happen if you did?”
“Maybe my stress wouldn’t build up and surprise me,” Marissa said, shifting her weight.
“So let out your stress earlier so it doesn’t build? That sounds like a great idea. How can you let some of that stress out?”
This is the point-of-resolve in the session. Until now, we have spent time in a place of discovery and observation, looking at what the stressor is and what the mental and physical responses have been.
“I could talk to one of my friends. I don’t mind when people come to me, so maybe some of my friends are the same. I would prefer to know what they are going through instead of having no clue.”
“What would happen if you spoke to a friend?”
“I think we would get closer probably.”
“Wow, so not only would you relieve some of the stress but you would contribute to a friendship?”
“Yeah. It sounds so simple. But it doesn’t feel that way.”
“Our own stress seldom seems simple. When will you talk to your friend?”
“I will call her today.”
“Sounds like a great plan. Is there anything else that might help your stress levels this week?”
“Maybe exercise. I haven’t worked out in awhile. Sometimes that used to help me chill out. Michael would love it if I worked out with him.”
“How about you?”
“I would love it if he would take me to get iced tea after. That is my favorite part of working out with him.” Marissa’s blue eyes sparked with a light I hadn’t seen in our entire session. A laugh lilted across the space between us.
“The tea sounds like the best part to me too. Would you like me to send you an email sometime this week to see if you were able to do these things for yourself?”
“Yeah, that would be great. Then I will really do it. I know it might be hard to actually make myself work out after work. If I have you checking in on me that will give me a little added boost.”
We smile at each other and set up an appointment to talk again in the following week. Marissa had several realizations around her stress, that if acted upon, should serve her well. I’ve noted several things we can talk about next week too, if she chooses to. However, ultimately, she will determine the direction and outcome of our sessions. I have no doubt she is headed in a good direction. Her lighter tone and brighter face speak to this.