A Step Beyond Mindfulness to Help With Anxiety: The 8 Steps of Focusing
22nd May, 2020
Would you like to learn a really simple practice to help with your coronavirus-related anxiety?
This is a free self-care method that can be employed anywhere – at home, on the bus, at work – to help manage uncomfortable feelings.
It’s called Focusing, and it’s relevant in any situation, but perhaps particularly so at a time when more of us are dealing with unaccustomed emotions because of the unusual situation we’re in with changes to routine, uncertainty, fears for ourselves or loved ones and other challenges. ‘Covid-19 anxiety’ is becoming a catch-all term for all sorts of ways in which our emotional and mental wellbeing may be thrown off balance. If you’re struggling to maintain your equilibrium at work because what work looks like has changed, or because work and home life are merging together, this might help.
I’m used to hearing from people that they want to ‘get rid’ of feelings of anxiety or overwhelm or stress or despair. In my experience – and I’m talking about my personal experience as well as professional – what really makes a difference is when you stop pushing those feelings away.
What is Focusing?
Focusing was developed by Eugene Gendlin, who did extensive research in the 1950s and 60s, finding that therapy clients who made positive lasting change, had an innate ability to pause and check ‘inside themselves’, to access a body ‘felt sense’ which they could learn from for their personal development and growth. He went on to develop a step-by-step process, to teach clients who didn’t have this ability naturally to develop it – not only to get more from therapy, but to work on issues or challenges themselves. Ann Weiser Cornell, a student of Gendlin’s, went on to develop ‘Inner relationship focusing’ from this.
I’d been trying Focusing on and off for some time as a kind of emotional first aid when things became extreme – for coping with work stress, for challenges in relationships, for example. During a period in my life a couple of years ago, when I was going through some major changes, I began doing it more.
What I discovered was interesting. Focusing didn’t make those feelings of anxiety or stress or shame or overwhelm go away. But I learned that I could tolerate these feelings by sitting alongside them. I learned that I could hold both the despair and the delight – sometimes at the same time – without being consumed. I also discovered that sometimes these parts of me, that were trying to get my attention, had some wisdom to impart, which I could learn from.
At the moment many people are struggling to separate life and work, either because they are key workers who are having to live up to a ‘Hero’ persona that has been thrust upon them, or because working-from-home has infiltrated their private lives. It is really OK and normal to feel upset, afraid, angry, overwhelmed…….whatever you feel. If you can make a space of just a few minutes in your day, Focusing can help you allow you to acknowledge that you’re feeling all-of-that, to hold that and to keep going too.
What’s the difference from other ‘inner practices’ like meditation or mindfulness?
You might already be familiar with exercises or practices that can help you soothe yourself, like mindfulness or meditation. Focusing is much like mindfulness…..AND it’s more. Because with Focusing there’s the opportunity, not only to notice when something comes into your awareness but, rather than letting it pass through, to form a relationship with it, listen to it – and learn from it. It can be soothing, it can be calming – and more too.
“If I let my anxiety in, won’t I be completely overwhelmed?”
Here’s a metaphor for you. Imagine that the anxiety (or feeling, or self-critical thought) is a little child wanting to get your attention. You ignore it. It shouts louder. You shut it in a cupboard. It really needs to scream now to be heard. And it’s going to carry on screaming even if you try and pretend it’s not there. What would happen if instead you let it out of the cupboard, took it on your knee and soothed it?
That’s how I think about uncomfortable feelings. Whether it’s anxiety, feeling that you’re out of control, thinking that you’re not good enough – there’s a part of you that’s trying to get your attention, and the more you ignore it the harder it tries. The practice of inner relationship focusing is a way of giving those feelings some space without becoming overwhelmed by them, because it encourages you to sit alongside them – like you might sit with a friend - rather than be in them. You could think of it as doing some gentle parenting with your ‘inner child’.
I work with a lot of people who have expectations of themselves for how they ‘should’ be in the workplace and feel a pressure to hide what’s going on for them (sometimes exacerbated by the actual workplace culture). In my experience Focusing helps give some space to those parts that feel particularly triggered by work-related stress and can support you to build your inner resources. The Focusing process of saying to the overwhelmed part of you “No wonder you feel overwhelmed” (rather than trying to ignore it because “other people are having a worse time”) can ease that stress.
How do I get started?
The easiest way of understanding what inner relationship focusing is, is to try it! I’ve included a link to a video at the end of this article that talks you through a very brief version of a focusing exercise so you can try it for yourself (skip to 2 minutes 20 seconds in for the start of the exercise).
Here’s a brief guide, based on Ann Weiser Cornell’s method:
- Find yourself a space where you can be undisturbed for 5-10 minutes. You can do it anywhere with practice, but you might not want to sit at your desk in a busy office the first time you try it! Sit down, make yourself comfortable, and close your eyes.
- Take a couple of slower breaths. Talk yourself through a body scan, starting with your feet and working your way slowly up your body.
- Start to bring your attention into your throat, chest, stomach and lower belly. Take a moment to notice what feels alive or good in there. Then ask a question in there “What wants to come right now?”
- When you become aware of something – a feeling, a thought (or any sensation or experience), take a moment to acknowledge it, to let it know you know it’s there.
- Check with it if you can sit alongside it for a moment, as if you were its friend. Be curious. If it shows you what it’s feeling, or tells you what it wants, let it know that you hear it. Don’t try to ‘make it better’ or do anything, simply let it know you hear it. If it’s telling you what it’s feeling, try saying ‘No wonder! No wonder you feel like that.’
- You may find other thoughts or feelings come up – especially if it’s your first time, there may be lots wanting your attention. Simply let them know that you know that they’re there. Respond to them as a ‘part’ of you.
- Take a moment to thank whatever has shown up, and let it / them know that you can return to this inner space.
- Bring your attention back to the outer areas of your body and then open your eyes when you’re ready. Give yourself a moment to come to, to transition back from this space to the busy world of work, or home, or wherever you are.
Focusing can feel strange at first, and it’s often easier to do with someone else ‘talking you in’, who can reflect what you’re experiencing and help you keep some separation from what comes up.
Here’s a video where I talk you through a brief Focusing exercise: https://youtu.be/nfKjh-gk3o0
Ann Weiser Cornell’s site has free courses: https://focusingresources.com/Gene Gendlin’s ‘Six steps’ to Focusing: https://focusing.org/sixstepsBritish Focusing Association: http://www.focusing.org.uk/
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Lucy Hyde, MBACP, ACTO, is a therapist in private practice, based in Scotland and specialising in working with clients throughout the world via online media. Focusing is one of the ways that supports her and her clients, to pay attention to the very young - and sometimes scared - child who is inside us, and to think about how we can take that small child by the hand, rather than pushing them away. She’s passionate about how we can get comfort from the natural world and the outdoors.