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The Integrated Coaching Academy

Where Coaching and Counselling Connect

Prince harry, grief and how to really help

Prince Harry has gone very public about his mental health struggles resulting from the death of his mother, Princess Diana. In Apple TV’s ‘The Me You Can’t See’ he says he ‘boxed up his emotions’ for 20 years.

It’s true; people often attempt to deal with life’s losses and traumas by disconnecting and switching off their feelings.

The ‘box-it-up’ method can work for a while, as it did for Harry, but what tends to happen over time is that the lid of the box begins to lift all on its own and the anger and despair begin to tumble out in an uncontrolled way. For Harry, the lid of the box seems to have really started to open after his marriage to Meghan and the build up to the birth of his first child created a psychological pattern match to the trauma of his mother’s death.

Harry was filmed in an EMDR session with his therapist. It seems to have really helped. I wish he could also experience the Rewind Technique which was originated by Dr David Muss in the 1970s. It can be even more effective. I did some training with David. As a newly qualified psychotherapist many years ago, I was so amazed by the successes I was having for my PTSD clients that I wrote a book about it. It works in a similar way to EMDR by grounding the client and setting a cognitive task that anchors the brain into the neo cortex. It’s less well known simply because it hasn’t attracted the research and funding of the EMDR programme originated by Francine Shapiro.

Here, an EMDR therapist gives a succinct explanation about the underlying mechanism. She says:

‘The therapy works by the therapist creating a safe and trusting space. We identify the experiences … and bring them into the room in a gentle way to reprocess those memories so the past can be in the past and our past life experiences do not continue to create stress, anxiety and triggers in our current life’

The subconscious mind

What stays in the subconscious mind has the ability to control us. Allowing suppressed emotions to safely surface can actually process long term grief in just one session... if that is what the client wants.

Sometimes, however, the bereaved just want to speak, to be allowed to explore and express their emotions in their own time and in their own way. Fortunately, a Fusion Therapeutic Coach will have the empathic attunement to understand what the client needs from their practitioner.

Yes, if they want resolution, the Rewind Technique can achieve that quickly and efficiently but if they need to talk, a Fusion Coach knows how to offer the time and space for that to happen. It’s about making the model fit the client rather than the client fit the preferred therapy style of the practitioner.

My article this week looks at suppressed grief and how the reaction to unprocessed emotions can take us by surprise many years later.

I hope it helps…

Grief and how to really help

As James sat in front of me, memory after memory of his father’s death surfaced, released, and ran softly down his face.

‘He died when I was 10’, said James. ‘It was an unexpected heart attack. He went to work one morning and didn't come home. Mum thought I was too young to go to the funeral so I went to school on that day just, like any other day.’

James's mum wasn’t being cruel. She had hoped to protect her young son from the pain of seeing her so desperately upset at the grave side. She wanted him to escape somehow the turbulent and intense range of emotions that are a part of the journey through the grieving process. So she made life as normal as possible for him. She compensated by taking him on lavish holidays, buying him the latest gadgets and putting on her ‘I'm fine’ face in the daytime.

Crying alone

She had removed all the pictures of James's father in the house and he was now rarely referred to.

The mother-who-meant-well stayed strong and kept going. She was doing a good job she told herself. After a year, James seemed fine, was doing well at school and never mentioned his father at all.

But the grief hadn’t gone away and it was only after she put James to bed at night that she allowed herself to cry. What she didn't realise was that, in bed at night, James could hear his mother crying and would often cry himself to sleep too.

Both mother and son were going through an intense range of emotions they did not want to communicate to each other, for fear of causing more upset. They had both become isolated in a shared grief for the most well-intentioned of reasons and they were making a mistake that many of us make.

I must keep going

There are plenty of laudable reasons for not dealing with grief. People have to go to work to keep their job. They have to get the kids off to school. They have to mow the lawn, do the shopping, cook and pay the bills. They think if they give way to grief, it will be like a dam has burst. They won’t be able to cope with the deluge and will drown in a flood of their own tears.

But deferring grief is like living with an undetonated bomb. We fool ourselves that if we tiptoe around it, perhaps it won’t go off.

An open wound

However the loss and grief remain as a concealed, but still-open, wound. Although we may have put a plaster over it, it will not begin to heal until we acknowledge its presence and let some light and air onto the injury.

As Prince Harry has observed, death has become a sanitised business.

We try to ignore it. We clean it up with phrases like ‘passed over’, or ‘slipped away’ rather than saying someone has died. Or we wrap it up and leave it on a shelf in a darkened room that we try not to visit.

We are taught, in the face of adversity to stand strong. We must stay in control. We have to keep a very British ‘stiff upper lip’.

But grief is not an illness. It’s a fact of life. We will all lose someone we love and we will all feel the pain. Being able to ride the intense waves of emotion that come with bereavement is an example of mind management and asking for help or talking to someone about how we really feel is a sign of emotional intelligence, not weakness.

As a therapeutic coach, I have a range of skills in my professional toolbox. But for James, as with most of my clients who are grieving, I used the simplest, yet most powerful of them all.

I listened.

Frances Masters MBACP accred GHGI

Frances Masters is a BACP accredited psychotherapist, coach, training consultant and author of the book PTSD Resolution: Reclaiming life from trauma.

In 2009, Frances founded the charity Reclaim Life; training its volunteers to work in the new, integrated coach-counselling model, Fusion.

As founding Principal of the Integrated Coaching Academy Frances gained accreditation for her training from NCFE as Customised Awards; 'The Fusion Therapeutic Coaching, Counselling and Training Diploma in Therapeutic Coaching and the distance learning programme Certificate in Therapeutic Coaching Skills'

Training programmes also include

The Integrated Coaching Academy certified Fusion Mindfulness Based Mind Management Skills Certificate

and new online training Breathe Stress Away

Fusion® Therapeutic Coaching is an approved NCFE training centre, an organisational member of he British Association of Counselling and Psychotherapy and the Association for Coaching


Polyvagal theory and the empathy bypass

Posted on August 28, 2017 at 8:10 AM

One of the joys of running the Diploma is meeting a group of like-minded people, getting to know each other and observing how relationships form.

Relationships are important. We are social beings. The human brain is a social organ. Empathy is central to relationships. Theory of mind means we can put ourselves in the shoes of the other, feel their feelings and see through their eyes.

On the Diploma, we watch an old recording of Carl Rogers counselling and man on anger. It's a rare film and not one you can access on you Tube.

One thing that shines through as you observe Rogers is how central empathy is to his work. Empathy is one of the person-centred core conditions for a therapeutic alliance. It's something we totally accept now but it wasn't always so.

Rogers was an innovator of what he termed ‘here and now therapy’. He was greatly inspired in this by the work of Otto Rank. Rank was once a central figure in Freud's analytical circle but became disillusioned with his oedipal obsession and the focus of psychoanalysis on the past.

Here and now therapy would focus instead on being fully present, and offering congruence, non-judgement and empathy to build a relationship and create a holding space where the client felt safe enough to explore their thoughts and feelings.

Polyvagal theory now offers an additional explanation for the effectiveness of the therapeutic alliance and how one human brain can connect with another.

The ventral vagal nerve is connected to the facial areas associated with communication, such as the eyes, mouth and ears. It is the most recently evolved branch of the autonomic nervous system and developed as human beings began to group together to form tribes and family units. Communication, both verbal and non-verbal now became essential for bond-forming and for working together.

Brain imaging confirms that information from our environment enters the right emotional brain hemisphere first. The brain checks out whether it is safe or whether it needs to engage fight or flight.

If it does feel safe, the incoming information travels across the corpus callosum, the bridge between the two hemispheres. It now engages the neo-cortex or rational left hemisphere where thought and reason process the data.

This milli-second of internal triage generally occurs outside of our consciousness.

If the environment feels safe, the ventral vagal system is in the driver’s seat and the brain tells the heart to remain calm. But if we sense a threat, whether real or imaginary, the older fight or flight system becomes switched on. Intense threat can even result in a brainstem response; freeze, shut down or death.

There are many ways to override our innate human empathy.

The social psychopath feels little if no empathy, for another human being. It's a brain wiring issue. The narcissist is so focused on ‘The self’ and their own needs that they see little point in engaging their empathic circuitry.

Polyvagal theory now informs us that, when we feel unsafe in our environment or in the presence of another, the older autonomic nervous system will produce more instinctive reaction that comes from the older part of the brain that perceives the world in a polarised, black or white, fight or flight mode.

In that mode, it's easy to see how empathy would be switched off, another explanation for how the hand that feeds can also be the hand that kills.


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