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5 ways to thrive (without having therapy)

Are you recovering from a set-back, stuck in a rut or just in need of some inspiration? If you feel ready for a fresh start — but not a therapist’s couch — here are some great alternatives

by Psychologies

1. Taking the reins

When Caroline, 41, first stepped into the riding school ring, her initial scepticism of equine-assisted therapy vanished. ‘I’d been referred by my GP, after having a breakdown,’ she says. ‘I’d felt overwhelmed by the demands of my family and I’d snapped and left the house for 48 hours. My instinct was to bolt again when I found myself standing by an enormous horse.’ The emotions Caroline experienced are typical of those undergoing equine assisted therapy, a technique pioneered in the US in the 1960s. According to therapist Wendy Powell, the horses can be a useful diversion for those who are uncomfortable with traditional therapy.

‘Finding yourself standing beside an animal with such power means you don’t think of it as therapy. Your focus is on the animal,’ she says. When faced with the potential threat and sheer newness of the situation many people let down barriers and reveal more about their personality and behaviour. Equine therapy doesn’t generally involve riding. Instead, patients complete simple tasks, such as putting a halter on the horse, or getting it to step backwards using nothing but their own physical presence. ‘As the patient gains confidence the horse becomes more trusting and helps them discover that they can alter the response and outcome by altering their own behaviour,’ says Powell. ‘It’s a therapy that is useful for all kinds of conditions, but it’s especially powerful for those who have low self-esteem.’

2. Making waves

Somehow watching the sea, be it tranquil or stormy, helps us to gain perspective. It’s this ethos that lies at the heart of Sea Sanctuary in Falmouth, Cornwall. Rather than the sterile environs of a therapist’s office, clients are invited aboard a beautiful yacht. They spend the day sailing off the Cornish coast with counsellors who are qualified in a range of techniques. ‘I’ve spent most of my life beside the sea, and it made sense to me that the ocean is the perfect setting for people who need time and space to reflect,’ says Joseph Fabian, director of Sea Sanctuary. ‘Research suggests a natural environment is a better place for therapy than a clinical setting.’

Most of the research centres on wilderness therapy, which reveals that those who are counselled in natural surroundings have higher recovery rates. The theory dates back to 1901, when inmates of an overcrowded New York asylum were moved into tents on the lawn to prevent an epidemic in the hospital. Many previously bed-ridden patients showed such marked and sudden improvements that they were able to be discharged. The idea of wilderness therapy was revived in the Sixties and since then, further studies have confirmed that an outdoor setting does dramatically improve mental health recovery rates. In particular, the sea seems to have a therapeutic effect on our sense of wellbeing and was listed in a recent survey as the most popular environment in which to soothe stress and anxiety.

3. Reel life

The practice of using films in therapy has grown over the past 20 years, and is now officially recognised as a useful aid to counselling by the Royal College of Psychiatrists. Bernie Wooder, a psychotherapist and author of Movie Therapy, says that nine out of 10 of his patients can name a film that’s moved them, even if they’ve never analysed why. He uses this as a starting point for discussion, encouraging patients to explore themes and relate them to real-life events, so the film works as ‘a catalyst that brings repressed feelings to the surface’.

Psychologist Dr Gary Solomon, author of The Motion Picture Prescription, prefers to prescribe films that his patients can watch on their own before feeding back to him. ‘The patient’s reaction to the film will show me if I’m on the right track. I can then concentrate on the particular aspects that moved them,’ he says. Even without a therapist, Solomon believes film can be a valuable tool for accessing issues we might have buried. Film acts as a metaphor for real-life situations. We have an innate inclination to identify with others and film taps in to this, alleviating the feeling of isolation. The realisation that others have similar experiences or emotions provides comfort and a sense of perspective.

4. Picture perfect

‘It all started with a black-and-white photograph my stepdaughter took of me,’ says portrait photographer and life coach Penny Millar. ‘I didn’t love it, but people kept saying what a lovely picture it was. I had been looking away from the camera and, for once in my life, I hadn’t been grinning manically or trying to please anyone. A good friend noticed my reaction to this photograph and said, “Pick it up, and tell me who you see”. I just burst into tears. I stepped back and I saw myself in the third person. I thought, “This woman looks so strong and self-contained and in control”. She looked like someone I wanted to be.’

That experience was the beginning of photoVoyage, an approach Millar developed to help people understand and come to terms with their self-image. She takes a series of portrait photographs, then guides her subject through a discussion about what they see. ‘It’s a different experience from looking at old family photographs, because then you tend to be remembering events,’ she says. ‘These photos are just about you. It can be a powerful, transformative process.’ Millar believes that photoVoyage works best in conjunction with other counselling or therapy, but it can work as a standalone process and is often the catalyst for people who find it hard to talk about how they feel, she says.

5. On song

Few things in life have the same emotional impact as music. With just a few bars of a song, we can be transported, uplifted, filled with joy or reduced to tears. And very little compares to the transformative experience of singing our hearts out. ‘Music has a profound capacity to connect with and express our emotions, and can open up a world of experience and beauty that goes beyond the mundane and banal realities of everyday life,’ writes Grenville Hancox, who has pioneered Singing on Prescription in NHS hospitals.

For many of us the thought of singing in front of other people brings back painful memories of school, of being asked to mime the words in carol concerts. But there are increasing numbers of courses intended to help timid singers find their voice. The Courage To Sing runs courses for people of all abilities, including those who don’t believe they can sing a note. ‘We get a lot of people coming to us who are really scared of expressing themselves. They can be amazing singers, but they’re full of fear,’ says founder Lorrayn de Peyer. ‘I trained as a singer, and I was doing well professionally, but I had tremendous emotional blocks, and a real lack of self-confidence. I tried a lot of different approaches to help me overcome it.’

Some of those approaches are now integrated in The Courage To Sing workshops. ‘The first thing we ask everyone to do is stand in a circle and sing one note, all together. They begin to appreciate the healing qualities of sound, and the circle emphasises that everyone is equal. We don’t teach people to sing, we facilitate it, and there’s an important difference.’ Equally important is the emotional connection to the music. ‘We encourage people to choose what they sing but, ideally, they’ll connect to the message of a song, to its subtext. They’ll learn to ask themselves what emotion they’re going to access and bring to this song. We want people to perform from a place of authenticity and truth, so we try to find out from people where they want to go with their lives.’