photo of a oier

How to emerge out of Lockdown and find our Selves again…

On Thursday I went into Brighton and wandered through the North Lanes. I bought a coffee and sat outside at a café. Later I bought a falafel wrap from “I Love Falafel, an old favourite of mine.

As I sat at the café watching people go past, I felt part of myself returning. In the past, I would cycle into Brighton along the seafront daily to work.  My bike currently sits rusting in my garden….

I would go to the office, chat with my colleagues in between clients and wander the Lanes. I may sit in the Pavilion Gardens for lunch, observe the buskers and the street goings-on. I may take in a film at the Duke of York Cinema after work, or meet friends for a few drinks in a pub.

What I realised is how much of myself I have lost this past year.  I have predominantly become an Online Therapist and a Mum. Many are talking of losing their ability to make conversation, how our memories are foggy and it seems we need to relearn how to do those everyday tasks we took for granted. Our brains over this past year have processed those regular occurrences as past experiences and stored them as memories. We need to learn our way of being again.

How do we bring back those parts of our identity we have lost?

Our Self-concept is our personal knowledge of who we are, encompassing all our thoughts and feelings about ourselves physically, personally, and socially. Self-concept also includes our knowledge of how we behave, our capabilities, and our individual characteristics.

Our self-concept develops most rapidly during early childhood and adolescence.  As a baby we develop our sense of self by having it reflected back to us by our caregiver. If we receive love from our mother, we grow up believing we are loveable. The holder of the mirror then switches to our peers at school, hence that time of life for so many who have difficult experiences at school can be so crushing for developing a positive self-concept.

However, our self-concept continues to form and change over time as we have new experiences, and it changes as we develop new friendships and relationships with others. Our self-concept is dependent on the social situations in which we find ourselves and the feedback we receive from that environment.

Our isolation this past year has meant that many of our interactions with others has been very restricted.  We have lost our sense of self. 

This week I returned to CrossFit, an important community that I have been part of for the past 5 years. A place outside my four walls that I have a sense of belonging.  There, I am not “Mum” or “Therapist” but someone who does some crazy exercise routines, laughs and connects with others on all sorts of levels. I have missed that person. She needs to emerge again.

There used to be this person who would jump on a train to London Victoria and take herself off spontaneously to explore the delights of London. She would take that free spirit further afield and find herself on a solo trip to Goa, looking for new environments and connections with people from different backgrounds and cultures. That part of myself has laid dormant for this past year, rarely making it past the end of my road at times. I want her back.

So, as we start to emerge out of lockdown, is it safe for us to start to give fuel to these lost parts of ourselves? Can we allow ourselves the space to grieve their absence? For many of us, they may not return. Certain relationships and parts of our Selves are lost, and we feel irrevocably changed by this past year.

But just maybe…..as Spring is here….a new Self can now emerge and our Lockdown Self can take a backseat.

I’m off to get my bike fixed….

assorted sliced fruits in white ceramic bowl

Has Lockdown caused a rise in Eating Disorders?

The media is now full of stories of body transformation tales. Tiktok has been rife for months with young women sharing online what they are eating throughout the day and showing their reduced waists. Teenagers are mimicking the smoothie bowls they see these new found influences making and are receiving messages from them about what is a healthy diet. Many of us have been without our preferred form of exercise and the last three months of winter lockdown has taken its toll on us emotionally and physically.

So now the diet companies are rubbing their hands with glee. Working as a Counsellor, and someone who was bulimic as a teenager, I am concerned for the impact on young people. They have been trapped in their bedrooms with nothing but online schoolwork to do. Everything that enables them to thrive has been taken away from them. GCSES were cancelled, their A-levels are a confused mess. Should they bother going to Uni this September? They are all in the throes of grief having lost a fundamental year in their development.

When we feel overwhelmed with feelings and emotions and our lives feel out of control, we revert to doing things that make us feel we have some mastery. What we put in and out of our mouths is a way that we can feel in control. For teenagers, their clothes and apperance is of paramount importance. So add in the teenage pressure of wanting to look good, making friends, and stepping into their emerging sexuality. The idea which is constantly sold to them by the media of changing your body shape to assist you with this can be tempting.

Woman shows off her incredible 4st weight loss in viral TikTok video after  reining in 'mindless snacking'

How do Eating Disorders start?

What can often start as a desire to lose a few pounds can escalate into skipping meals. As the weight starts to drop off, you start to feel better about yourself. You may feel a sense of achievement and you attract positive comments from family and friends which encourages this behaviour. However, there can be a point when this tips and starts to move towards an eating disorder.

The lightheadedness felt from hunger becomes addictive and for many, the internal critical voice can get louder and louder – shaming you if you have detoured from your diet and eaten something you shouldn’t. This voice can become so persecutory it can take over and those suffering with anorexia feel beholden to it. Women I have worked with have shared that however horrible this voice is in their head, it is also company. Anorexia can start up when people are feeling lonely and isolated and it is as if this persecutory voice is a replacement for companionship and care.

For others, when they detour from their resticted diet, the shame can lead to Binge Eating and /or Bulimia. Over exercising or purging can seem like a quick and easy solution to getting rid of those extra calories you have eaten. Before long purging one meal can lead to purging all meals. If you are going to purge, you might as well eat all the foods you don’t allow yourself to. So biscuits, cake, ice cream can all be eaten and then purged. Again, this gives the illusion of control. You often feel deeply shamed about overeating, but then the relief comes with the purging and you feel back in control.

Eating Disorders often begin because people want to lose weight. Messages in the media and society are constantly telling us we will be happier, be accepted, and be succesful if we look a certain way. They become an addiction in a similar way to drugs and alcohol as a way for us to manage overwhelming emotions and feelings. Once an Eating Disorder takes a grip, it takes a lot of work and support to change our behaviour.

How to get support?

We have to learn to value ourselves and care for our bodies. To nourish ourselves with nutritious healthy foods and to find other ways to manage our difficult feelings and emotions. As a hidden bulimic sufferer myself for years, the shame prevented me from telling anyone. I had buried my emotions and was unaware I felt anything other than shame about being overweight. Working alongside an empathic Counsellor and processing these supressed emotions, enabled me to start caring for myself and my body.

If you are concerned about someone who is showing signs of rapid weight loss, be mindul of what may be going on beneath the surface. They may need support with the underlying feelings that are going on and may benefit from Counselling so they can share this with someone who understands how they are using their relationship with food as a way of managing their distress.

As well as working as a Counsellor, I run workshops and events throughout the year. If you would like to be kept informed of those, please leave your details below.

How is your nervous system coping with the news this week?

anonymous woman walking near waving sea

Watching the Harry and Meghan interview on Monday night, the emotion that stood out the most for me was fear. They both mentioned so many times that they felt that had no choice because their security was taken away and they felt unsafe. The fear had a sense of being historical as well as coming from the present. Women are raging about the abduction of Sarah Everard this week. Women want to feel safe and not feel scared anymore to walk home alone in the dark.

When we experience trauma, our autonomic nervous system can become mobilised, our heart rate increases, adrenaline and cortisol is released and blood rushes to our muscles and our body goes into its fight or flight state – ready to protect us from the danger. Sometimes when the danger feels too great, and we cannot fight or run our nervous system shuts us down it freezes. Our heart rate, blood pressure and body temperature decrease and pain numbing endorphins are released. However, these frightened feelings do not lay dormant forever, and they may be triggered by certain events, sounds, smells, and memories at later points in our lives.

Over this past year we have all collectively experienced Trauma. Trauma is what happens inside of us as a result of what happens to us. It is an experience, not an event. We have been told repeatedly that we are unsafe and that if we leave our house and make contact with others, we may catch a Virus that may kill us or may kill another. Our nervous systems have become hypervigilant, and we have been in a constant state of survival. It is exhausting. We are exhausted. Many of us are at tipping point. Our usual ways of managing emotional distress – whether it be through the gym, the pub, dancing, social interactions, travel – they have all been taken away from us. We have been left alone with our nervous systems – many of them hypervigilent and on the lookout for threat. A young mum recently told me how her two-year- old just automatically crosses the road now when she sees another person approaching. We have learnt to fear each other.

Even Piers Morgan could not withstand the debate on TV on Tuesday morning on GMTV and had to flee from what he may have experienced as an attack. This week, several have shared how triggered they felt listening to the wind blowing in the night. How it felt like it was coming to attack them.

So, how can we support ourselves at this time?

We can acknowledge how deeply traumatic this past year has been for us. How we have been living for over a year now in a place of extreme uncertainty. All that we thought and knew has been taken away from us. In Existential Therapy, we acknowledge that there are 4 givens of existence. These include freedom, isolation, the inevitability of death, and meaninglessness. Often when people come up against one of these it can lead to overwhelming distress. Collectively we have all come face to face with these givens over this past year and many of us have had to keep pressing on. Some of us have been trying to financially support ourselves whilst home schooling and parenting at the same time. Consumed with concern for children’s wellbeing, there is little chance to look after our own.

We can find ways to regulate our nervous system and bring us back into a grounded calm state by doing some of the activities below.

1. Have a break from the news. Stop scrolling on social media. It will keep you in a place of being repeatedly triggered.

2. Get out in nature. Look up, notice the trees, the birds. the beauty around you. Take your camera out and notice the colours around you.

3. Exercise – move your body. When we get triggered, we sometimes need to disperse the anxiety flooding us and going for a run enables our body to release the anxiety and gives us endorphins which lift our mood.

4. Call a friend. Share how you are feeling, so you are not alone with it. We are all struggling with isolation at the moment and it is essential to process your thoughts and feelings with somebody else to prevent them spiraling. We often mirror the state of those around us, so spend time with those who are calm and uplifting.

5. Do a mindful activity. Baking a cake, jigsaw puzzle, painting, yoga – something that engages your mind in the here and now. Gives your mind and body a break.

6. Gratitude. Write out daily three things you feel grateful for. It is easy to see the world as very negative at the moment and we need to remind ourselves of the positive things in our life.

7. If you really feel panicky, a useful way to ground yourself quickly is to go through your senses. Name something in the room you can see, hear, smell, touch and taste.

8. Affirmations. Tell yourself that you are Safe. Our nervous system can sometimes not differentiate between our unsafe past and new safe present.

If you feel isolated and feel you need additional support from outside your home, then seek support from a Counsellor. It can often be underestimated how supportive it can be to know you have someone alongside you, really present and listening and wanting to meet you where you are right now.

If you would like to sign up to my mailing list, to hear of further events or courses I may be runnning, please do so below.


Why offer a Womens Group?

Image result for women burkhas

Towards the end of Junior School, the divisions begin. Some girls hit puberty and as their minds and bodies adjust to the influx of hormones, other girls are left behind and may be scorned at for their “childish” behaviour. The “Popular” girls in secondary school tend to be those who act more “grown up” – wear the make- up, have boyfriends first, start drinking first. Girls often yearn to be in the popular group, and old safe friendships may be discarded in a quest for acceptance and validation. However once in, they can often discover that these friendships are built on sand and there is nothing but an Instagram picture and pout that may hold them together. We compete, we compare, we feel jealous, we put down, we scorn, we hate, we turn on each other, all vying, trying to find our place in our tribe within the school community.

A play written in 2013 by Evan Placey called “Girls Like That” follows a group of girls from when they start school age five, through to when they graduate aged eighteen. The playwriter was interested in exploring the question of whether young women oppress each other in the same ways’ men oppress women. He noted that “It wasn’t just that girls were bullying other girls, it’s that they were using the same tools that men had invented to oppress women. ”

This play may have been written in 2013, but much of what is depicted feels familiar to my school days 30 years earlier. Many women make wonderful female friendships, but when faced with a scenario which may replicate a school grouping such as in the workforce, those similar feelings can rear up again and women can compare, contrast, shame, put down and scorn each other, rather than boost each other. Often powerful women in the media can receive personal hostile attacks from other women and we learn that it is not safe to speak out or be seen.

What is so often lost for women is how wonderful being part of a supportive collective group of women can really be. Several years ago, I was in Morocco in a local Hamman and was fascinated to watch the groups of women come in for their Saturday morning ritual of bathing and chatting with each other. They left ther burkhas in the changing rooms, and stepped naked through the doorway, appearing to have no shame about their bodies as they all sat together. Washing, grooming, chatting, laughing and connecting before drying off and leaving. Putting back on their burkhas and stepping out into the dusty street outside. I was truly mesmorised and envious of the freedom these women apperaed to demonstrate with one another. This felt so contrasting with my perceptions of an oppressed gender due to their Burkha wearing.

Since then I have worked for many Womens organisations and have experienced the solidarity and empowerment that can come from being part of a collective supportive group of Women. This is not to diminish how essential mixed gender groups are in order to heal the rifts that are so abundant between us in our society. However, that is for another time….

Being socialised as a woman in our society is a different experience to being socialised as a man. From the minute we are born we are conditioned differently, if not by our parents then by society at large. Throughout most of history, women could not protect our own safety through physical, legal or financial means. Being likeable and acceptable is ingrained in us as a survival strategy and we are conditioned to be nice and to seek praise. So, what do we do when we feel angry and rageful, despairing, have needs of our own, have strong opposing opinions? So often many of us supress our feelings and ways of being as we feel they are unacceptable. Depression can take hold as it can feel easier to turn our anger inwards rather than outwards and make the changes in our lives and relationships that we need in order to truly thrive.

Women’s networking groups have risen in popularity in recent years, mainly based at empowering women in their business and the workforce. The power of female solidarity has been recognised and women are coming together from across the world to support and encourage one another to step into their authority.

My intention is to provide a nourishing nurturing space for women to come together and truly bring their whole selves. To be seen and met by one another, to share their difficulties as well as their joys. There can be something truly joyful and empowering that can come from feeling a sense of female solidarity and knowing that it is okay to bring your messiness. This is not to say that difficulties may arise as a result of our experiences in the past with other women, our mothers, our sisters, but this offers an opportunity to heal a part of ourselves that we may not be able to do on our own or in our dyadic relationship. I am often struck how within a space of an hour and a half a group of women can hold grief and despair for one another and equally have moments of pure delight and giggles. I invite you to leave your metaphorical burkhas at the door.

As Carl Rogers, the founder of Humanistic Therapy said, ” The Curious Paradox is that when I can accept myself completely as I am, then I can change.”

If anyone would like any information about the current Women’s Group I facilitate or to sign up to my mailing list for details of future groups, please click on the link below.

How can we support our Teenagers?

It is getting harder and harder. For all of us. And the teenagers are really struggling. I work with several teenagers and have noticed feelings of apathy and depression really taking grip now.

“I feel flat.” “Numb.” “Nothing – I don’t know.” “Unmotivated.” “Hopeless.” “Bored.” “Isolated.” “Lethargic.” “Its like being in prison.”

Fed up of being at home, yet anxious about going back to school. Many of the teenagers do not turn on their videos on their online classes as they do not want to be seen. They are too self-conscious. They speak into an abyss. They are not having even the face to face contact we may think they are having in their lessons.

As we approach the anniversary mark of when Lockdown began, we are all aware that we have lost a year of our lives. In the life of a child, this has huge significance. Each year marks a huge developmental milestone that is essential they make for their wellbeing. A child in year 7 was unable to have the ending they needed to leave their primary school and move into Secondary School. They have been unable to make friends as they would do if they were regularly attending school and are instead stuck alone in their bedroom. Isolated.

Older teenagers have been unable to sit their GCSES and A-Levels and have lost that sense of achievement they may receive when they see their grades. A feeling of accomplishment and thus a boost to their self esteem. I heard how one child just felt flat on receiving her grades, despite them being good, she didn’t feel they were properly hers. Those who were sitting their A-Levels this year have had them whipped away from them, still unsure how they are going to be marked and by who. They have missed out on their whole sixth form experience. Do they bother going to University next year? Is there a guarantee they won’t be isolated in their room doing lectures online like this year’s unfortunate cohort. What about the parties, the socialising, the risk behaviour – all the things as parents we may dread, but all an essential part of growing up and separation that a child needs to do in preparation for adulthood.

How do we continue to support them?

An important thing to acknowledge and recognise is that we can’t make it all better. We can’t make the pandemic go away. We can’t be their teacher, be their friends. What we can do is be alongside them and just listen when they are feeling low. Give them a space to vent how angry and frustrated they are. We often feel helpless wanting to come up with ideas to make things better, but sometimes accepting we can’t can be really helpful.

Grief. They are dealing with a huge amount of grief. Loss of friends, teachers, grandparents, their freedom, who they were outside of the home. Grief throws up all sorts of emotions – anger, sadness, despair, rage and a recognition their life is out of their control. The path they thought they had has been changed and they have no idea what it looks like now.

Structure. Trying to encourage structure really is key. Getting dressed before online school. Walking round the block before the first lesson. Having 3 meals a day. Using their timetable to allocate mealtimes and snacks. Differentiating between weekends and weekdays.

Nature. Getting outdoors. Often such a struggle to convince them, but without a doubt the thing that lifts moods and can shift energy. Even if it is cold and wet, they then appreciate returning home to the warmth.

Empowerment. Be mindful of Tik Tok. Ask to see what is on their feed. I have been shocked by the trend for teenagers to list all the food they eat in a day and show their often very skinny bodies. If they are seeing this stuff, open up discussions about it. Wonder why girls are posting this and why they are placing so much importance on it. Eating Disorders often emerge as a way young people gain a sense of control in their lives. Their life feels out of their control at the moment so help them see what is in their control. Help them to feel empowered.

Other Adults. Having contact with other adults other than parents. Schools are their community and they have lost their community. Alongside their friends, feeling seen and important by other adults hugely impacts their self-esteem and worth. Drop your friends kids a note saying how well they are doing getting through this, knowing how tough it is for them. Let them know they are being thought about. Encourage your teens to send messages of support to younger kids so they feel they are supporting others. This encourages a feeling of purpose and wellbeing.

Screentime. As parents it can be hard witnessing the amount of time they spend on screens. Trying to get the balance right is really hard as this is often the only contact they have with friends and may be the only thing that is keeping them going at the moment. Make sure they have time off screens before going to sleep so their brains get a chance to unwind and slow down.

Photography. Getting outside and looking up and taking a photo is a wondrful mindful activity. Seeing what is around us. Finding the beauty in the simple things around us can produce serotonin.

Gratitude. Round the dinner table at night, encourage a conversation about what 5 things you feel grateful for today. It is important to bring in some positive thoughts.

S.A.D. The days are getting longer and the light is changing. Explain about Seasonal Affective Disorder and that it may be contributing to them feeling low, and that Spring is round that corner and it will feel better. Get them a Vitamin D spray or a lightbox may help.

Support Yourself. Essential to all the support you can offer is finding ways to support yourself. Unless you are well yourself and your own mental health is in check, you will be unable to support your children. Make sure you take time time out for yourself and do all you can to keep your own mood afloat.

I am running a 6 week online course offering support to those finding it hard at the moment to keep going, so please come along if you think you and therefore your family may benefit from you having that nurturing time for yourself once a week.

https://ameliawhitecounselling.com/therapeutic-support-group-for-women/

Boarding School. A privilege or hidden form of Child Neglect?

Are you a Therapist working with adults who have been to Boarding School? Or someone interested in how a boarding school education may impact a child’s upbringing and subsequently their behaviour as an adult?

Come and join me for this online workshop next Wednesday evening – 4th November. 6-8pm.

https://www.eventbrite.co.uk/e/boarding-school-a-privilege-or-a-hidden-form-of-child-neglect-tickets-122359302969

Exercise – Why do we really do it?

I passed a friend on the way back from the gym this morning at 7am.  She sent me a message saying, “I can’t believe you get up so early to go to Crossfit. “

I realise that to many it may seem like madness, some crazy fitness addiction, a punishing regime.  For many people, there is no doubt that it can become this and people can also use intensive exercise as a way to manage their anxiety and emotions. It can replace other addictions they may have used in the past such as drugs and alcohol, be part of an eating disorder and can work as a distraction or a form of control.  

I began running about 10 years ago and quickly noticed how dependent I became on it.  The run round the park became 5k, then 10k, a half marathon and then the Brighton Marathon.  Two weeks before I was due to run in the Brighton Marathon, I tore my calf muscle and was unable to take part.  I was gutted, but the hardest part of it all was being told that I couldn’t run for several months in order to give my calf the time it needed to heal. This took six months. I realised then how dependent I had become on running for my mental health.  How it had become an addiction that had helped me manage the difficulties in my marriage, my loss of self and my low self- esteem which had plummeted as a result of being a stay at home mum.  It meant that I didn’t have to focus on the lifestyle changes that I really needed to make, as each time I shut the front door I could leave all those worries behind me and get my fix of endorphins.  It was my substitute anti-depressant.  As a result of my injury, I had to take stock and work through all the emotional difficulties I was having at the time and make fundamental changes to the way I was living my life. I couldn’t run away from them any longer. Literally and metaphorically.

A few years later, a friend encouraged me to put my name into the ballot for the London Marathon.  Many people try year after year, so it was a complete surprise to get a place. This time I did it differently. I trained slowly and gently, listening to my body and what it needed.  When I had a twinge I rested, I had sports massages and a few weeks before the event, I took myself off to a yoga retreat. Running the London Marathon was one of the best days of my life. The atmosphere was electric, the sun was shinning and I crossed that finish line in disbelief.  I think I was in shock for a while.  Everything worked.  Nothing was injured.  I know that the reason I was able to do so was because of the way I had looked after my body and mind in a completely different way than I had those years earlier.  This time I wasn’t running away from anything or pounding the pavements in desperation to get that fix I needed to make my life more manageable.

Exercise for me now is incredibly important in maintaining my physical and mental health but is no longer the coping mechanism it once was. I go to Crossfit three times a week, regularly sea swim and try and do some yoga.  In this morning’s session, I lifted some weights whilst we swapped stories about what posters we had on our walls as teenagers (Pamela Anderson and bikes seemed to be a popular theme for the men). We discussed music and shared our nostalgia for gigs and the loss we feel with their absence at the moment. We discussed Freddie Flintoff and his documentary on Bulimia that was shown this week. The causes of Bulimia and how it is such a hidden illness for men, despite 1 in 4 sufferers being male.  We stretched. And we ate cake on the way out that someone had baked.

The physical fitness is important but equally as important for me is the connections, the laughs, the conversations, and spending time with a group of people in my community made up of different genders and ages that I may not mix with in other parts of my life.  As we all discovered in Lockdown, Social isolation has a huge negative impact on our mental health. Having an excuse to go and hang out with others regularly, check in how we are and discuss weekly topics under the guise that we are all only there to get fit, is an essential part of my self-care and wellbeing.

September – A Month of Transition.

I noticed how the long-awaited relief of children returning to school was entwined with a feeling of loss and sadness this week. My mood dipped and I started to recognise this feeling as a familiar tone that sets in year after year in September. The sea suddenly becomes less inviting, I notice the evenings start to draw in and that abundant energy I had in June and July is no longer present. As the leaves start to fall from the trees and the seasons change, so do I.  The familiar feeling is one of grief.

As a child I was sent to Boarding School, so each September my trunk would be packed and off I would go, leaving behind my mum, my cat, my house, my bedroom and have to quickly make the transition to being one of 30 girls sleeping in an open dormitory. There was no space for grief and transition then as I had to adapt quickly with a brisk goodbye at the door to my mum and a goodbye to the summer holidays and the time I had spent outside of this institution.  As an adult I have always viewed September as a new beginning and am able to see how I have developed a pattern of often shedding jobs and relationships in the summer months, preparing for this new term to start. 

However, these days those feelings of grief show up and I am no longer able to push forward as I have in the past.  This has shown up in a cough in recent Autumns that I have struggled to shift.  As a child in that first year at Boarding School I developed Asthma out of the blue. Many of us associate sadness and grief with the heart, but In Chinese Medicine your lungs are seen as a repository for these emotions. We have all encountered so much grief in the past six months.  We may have individually experienced the physical loss of a loved one, we may have lost the job we cherished, the financial security we had, our space away from our children, our routine, our holidays, physical touch and our freedom of movement.  We have all collectively experienced the loss of the lifestyle that we once knew. The ground that once felt solid beneath our feet is now like sand as we move into Autumn uncertain whether another Lockdown is on the horizon and we are still unable to plan for the future.

 So, as the leaves have started to fall this week, and my energy levels started to droop, I have stopped in my rush to push forward and decided to be kind to myself.  To give my body and my mind what it is asking for.  Nourishing food, warm baths, and plenty of rest.  I have started giving myself a massage each evening before bed with Bergamot aromatherapy oil, known for its mood balancing and uplifting properties. So often our minds can race ahead of our bodies with all these intentions and plans, and our bodies then crash with burn out / depression or a physical ailment that causes us to stop.  Hopefully this year, I have spotted the signs early on and have started to slow down into Autumn and give my body and mind what it really needs and deserves. We are unable to fully go forwards and transition unless we make space to let go of our grief. We have all had to adapt so much these past six months and we are incredibly resilient to have done so, so make sure going into Autumn you give yourself the nurture that you need and deserve.

“The Privilege of Boarding School…”

“The dreadful handover on that first day at school found me walking down a long corridor with great distrust, as each step took me closer to the inevitable saying goodbye. I was 10 years old. A formidable woman met us, and a smaller rather timid woman stood by her side. I did not take to them or them to me. As I stepped over the threshold I knew deep inside me that this was not going to be a good experience.  I was right, it was something to get through, something to be endured. The feeling was one of going inside from the light into the dark, of leaving all I knew and that was familiar. As I stepped into the dark everything closed in on me and I left most of myself, if not all, outside.  It has taken years of therapy and support from family and friends for me to find myself again.” (annonymous).

What is Boarding School Syndrome?

Boarding School Syndrome is not a medical category, but a proposal that there is an identifiable cluster of learned behaviours and emotional states that may follow growing up in boarding school, which can lead to serious psychological distress.

These can include:

  • Depression
  • Difficulties in forming relationships.
  • Emotional numbness.
  • Hyper-vigilence.
  • Low self-esteem and confidence.
  • Low levels of self-care.
  • Burn Out.
  • Trauma.
  • A Strategic Personality Adaptation.

What are the psychological events that may lead to Boarding School Syndrome?


Attending boarding school is a unique and alternative upbringing which impacts heavily on long-term development. Understanding the nuances of boarding school experience is important for understanding where many symptoms stem from.

Hidden Trauma

The lasting effects of early boarding is a hidden trauma. A young child sent away from home to live with strangers, and in the process loses their attachment figures and their home. They’re exposed to prolonged separation. They may experience bullying and loss. This combination leads to unbearable emotional stress. A young child does not have the mental capacity for creating a coherent narrative out of these events on their own, as they are unable to process it. This trauma may become embodied, leading to conversion physiological symptoms and a large number of psychological symptoms.

Bereavement

The term ‘homesickness’ does not do justice to the depth of losses to which the boarding school child is subjected. The broken attachments of the first days in boarding school amount to a significant, but unrecognised form of bereavement and the child must learn to live without love.

For the child, their losses are minimised and glossed over as insignificant. This contributes to the hidden aspect of the trauma. The term ‘homesickness’ encompasses a complex systems of unprocessed grief and many children are emotionally wounded (traumatised), exiled (homeless) and bereaved (grieving). Suddenly, children are abandoned and have to adapt to the abrupt and irrevocable loss of the childhood state. Children lose their role – their sense of themselves as people who belong in a family group and have to prematurely appear grown up. It is not uncommon for the repressed distress to come out in symptoms such as bed wetting and vomiting as tears are not permitted.

The child may feel a sense of homelessness. The repeated experience of returning home as a stranger and then leaving, just as the child has settled back in, builds a psychological pattern – an expectation of being left which is often unconsciously active in later life. These patterns of disrupted attachments are often replayed within a long-term partnership. This can also cause a psychological split between the boarding school self and the home self.

If the child is unhappy but is given the message that the school is good for her and a privilege, then they feel they have no right to complain and this can lead the child to doubt her or his own perception. Although the child may conform, the confusion will likely remain, causing a second psychological split between the feeling self and the thinking self.

Another loss is the dependent state of childhood and thus the premature death of the child self. This can never be regained because when the child returns home she or he is inevitably changed, no longer trusting but watchful and alert for rejection. Once a child realises her parents are not returning, an encapsulation of self occurs and a protective shell is formed. Deep within the armoured self is the hidden vulnerable child who trusts no one. Overwhelmed with many physical manifestations of grief, something has to happen psychologically for the child to survive, and children have to learn to live cut off from their internal emotional turmoil.

Captivity

The child is captive, living in a situation not of his own choosing and which he is helpless to change and thus is undergoing another hidden trauma. Living without traditional family markers of the passing of time, such as birthdays, means that when an ex-boarder tells his tale it may lack narrative flow.

In the case of imprisonment, there is an absence of loving relationships. There is also no one with whom she feels she can be appropriately angry. Without the outlet for expression, the child may turn that anger inwards. An unconscious form of splitting may occur, whereby in order to keep the parents happy, the child has to do violence to his own psyche.

Ex-boarders often seek therapy for general depression, relationship difficulties, and a sense of emotional numbness, which may manifest from not living their own lives. Even experienced therapists may miss the depth of the wound inflicted by broken attachments and the emotional neglect suffered when the child is sent to boarding school. As a result of society viewing Boarding Schools as a privileged upbringing, the ex-boarder themselves may be carrying shame from having had what others perceive as a privileged start and this can prevent them from acknowledging their distress. Their symptoms are often hidden behind a brittle facade of competence and such adults can find it difficult to ask for help.

Symptoms and what to be aware of when working therapeutically with ex-boarders.

As children, ex-boarders were unable to tell their parents of their suffering and thus as adults they may disregard their own suffering. This may replay in therapy as they may not expect the therapist to take their story seriously. They may recount it, omitting the emotional impact and gloss over their suffering with a well-rehearsed joke. It can often be difficult for the adult to recognise that the treatment they received was wrong, as a child usually assumes her experience to be the norm, especially when it is shared with others who are in similar circumstances.

The ex-boarder may appear socially confident, but may have a deep and permanent lack of trust in loving relationships as a lasting repercussion to the repetition of loss. It can replay in adult relationships, and manifests in anticipation of rejection and fear of abandonment by later attachment figures. This may lead to emotional withdrawal and as an adult they may, against their own desires and emotional needs, prematurely cut off from intimate relationships. This may replay as psychotherapy becomes important, and it may lead to sudden termination of the therapeutic relationship when the rage associated with dependency begins to surface.


With ex-boarders, the breaks in psychotherapy have little impact at first. The regular pattern of school holidays followed by the return to school arms the ex-boarder with a mechanism for coping with disrupted attachments. However, after a few breaks, they may need to stop, believing they are better working things out alone as dependency seems too much.


Boarding school may also lead to the creation of strong sibling groups. The bonding in sibling groups compensates for the loss of family and the significance of the sibling group continues into adult life as a sense of belonging is maintained. The powerlessness that children at first experience in relation to the rules may create a sibling bond and may also produce people who conform. This prepares them well to follow a career in the military, law or some highly formalised institution.

Ex-female boarders have an ability to get in with people of all classes and help others feel at ease. However, as their suffering is masked, the therapist may have to resist reciprocating the friendliness in order to take seriously the perceived suffering hidden behind the social presentation. Women may also show up symptoms of shame, as they were often punished with shame and humiliation as opposed to the physical beatings in many boys schools.

The behaviour of adults in positions of trust is a common theme in the psychotherapy of ex-boarders. They can often be very wary of authority figures.  As adults they can tell of the beatings and sexual abuse to which, as children, they were subjected. Often at the time they were unable to tell of this abuse, as a result of broken attachments with parents and the behaviour normalised within the school. The culture of the boarding school may include practices and traditions where the violation of personal privacy and boundaries may be the norm. Paedophiles have often chosen to operate in boarding schools where it is easier to isolate and abuse children.   In recent years, there has been more public and media attention devoted to the exposure of these occurrences in schools and finally the children are getting their stories heard. Thus in psychotherapy with ex-boarders one of the most important tasks is witnessing and then putting into words feelings that are being expressed

The dissociation from feelings is much more readily accomplishable when they can be located within someone else. As a therapist you have to be aware of the possible projective identification, as often the disowned feeling states turn up in their partner or in yourself as a therapist.  By having a vulnerable seeming partner, a dissociating ex boarder can continue to fill the place created by loss and maintain the identity of not being the one who is vulnerable.

The child who is sent to boarding school at an early age is still active in some of the adults who come for therapy… This aspect of the personality is often in stark contrast to the highly articulate persona of the initial presentation. The armoured personality and encapsulated emotional self becomes a way of being and influences the way ex-boarders may interact as adults.  As a child, the ex-boarder split off parts of his vulnerable self in order to survive, and the adult may show signs of amnesia and an inability to get in touch with their feelings. Ex-boarders may show symptoms of dissociation and it may manifest as a sense of feeling permanently distant from the world which is a recognised symptom of PTSD.  Therefore an approach that attends to bodily symptoms and links the person to their body experiences may help. The ex-boarder may need to learn that it is safe to have feelings.

The task of the therapist is a combination of bearing the pain with the client and witnessing, as well as attempting to give words to the difficult and sometimes very painful feeling states that emerge in the process. The strong attachment to the parents that the child has to sever is transferred to the survival personality itself.  This makes therapy with ex boarders challenging as the client may feel that the therapist wants to take away the one constant that has been there throughout her life.  Their very own survival personality.

A goal of therapy is to enable the ex-boarder to move from survival to living.

We Love the NHS…..

Over the last week I have started to notice a slight feeling of distaste growing inside me each time I see another pop concert being offered to NHS workers. Offers of adoration and praise have been coming in thick and fast as these frontline workers are being compared to the soldiers going over the battlefields in the war, putting their lives at risk for us.  How this is enabling us to come together as a nation, to feel patriotic and clap on the streets and bang our saucepans and wave to our neighbors whom we have been ignoring up until now. We are even all looking forward to our post Pandemic street parties.

 I salute and applause all the doctors, nurses and key workers who are all putting their lives at risk performing their jobs, so why am I feeling this way?

This morning, after a session with a client, I made the connection. I am noticing a similar pattern with that of abuse.

The NHS has been struggling and on its last legs for years. Staff have been working ridiculously long work shifts, with very little support for their own mental health and partly because they are told they are heroes and angels, they keep going.  These people are wonderful and without their dedication, endurance and huge hearts, many more of us would be unwell and die. Before any of this started.

So, we tell them how “special” they are.  What an amazing wonderful job they are doing.  What incredible people they are. We lavish praise on them at this time like never before.  This is a known tactic of grooming and exploitation.  Abusers tell their victims how special they are, how much they love them and this boost to their self -esteem often prevents victims speaking out about their abuse and challenging it.  It silences them.

What would happen if all these people put their energy into petitioning the government to get the staff proper equipment and support, rather than delivering them gifts of smoothies or painting rainbows on their faces? How about we vote for a government that supports the NHS.  It’s the changes to their working conditions that are fundamentally needed, as opposed to offers of love and saucepan banging. 

The solidarity on the streets at 8pm on Thursday and the coming together as a community is a wonderful thing, but let’s not fool ourselves that we are doing it solely altruistically for the NHS.