The Layers of Coping and Healing

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about what helps in therapy and how many people, including me, have tended to dip their toes in and out of the process. There’s no simple solution obviously, or therapy wouldn’t be the big business that it is. But what’s important to me as a therapist is that I maintain faith that the process can be healing.  The fact that not only have I experienced levels of healing myself but also witnessed moments of healing with my clients, this makes me all the more motivated to spread light on the possibility of full recovery.

Sometimes the women I work with initially end up in treatment for an eating disorder with little to no insight about the underlying mechanisms that brought them there. I can’t even count how many times I’ve been told by women in recovery that they didn’t even think they had a problem to begin with. It’s only when they begin to explore questions about the impact of the ED on personal work, school, relationships, and mental health that it turns out yes, the concerns are valid. A wise woman recently shared about her frustration that the world view of EDs still seems to be categorized as a vanity issue and I was relieved to see that her artwork was able to reveal the knowledge of pain beneath it all. Not that I want anyone to feel pain mind you, quite the opposite. But the truth is that healing won’t likely take place until the pain is addressed in one way or another. And the irony is that as far I can see, EDs often begin as coping mechanisms to distract from the pain in the first place, with the intention of taking you as far away from it as possible.

It may not seem fair to generalize this when the experience of an ED is so individual, as is treatment. But still, in my experience as a therapist, I find time and again that somewhere beneath all the depression, anxiety and symptom use is a vulnerable place that is often avoided at all costs, and understandably so when you consider the shame and stigma associated with mental health disorders. It’s as if the whole process starts with the use of unhealthy coping mechanisms to move away from pain, and once in treatment new coping mechanisms are set in motion that take you on a path toward wellness. At times people may choose to stop there, but I think it’s important to point out that while healthy coping mechanisms can have healing qualities, healing is not a coping mechanism in and of itself.

It’s a slippery slope, this process of recovery. At times a well-meaning therapist may go too quickly into the pain, or conversely someone who is eager to get the process over with might go straight to the pain without being prepared to do so and either of these scenarios can be disastrous.

I find that healing is the thing that is supported by healthy coping mechanisms on either side, like little bundles of light that have a continuous need to be protected, cared for and nurtured. These moments of healing might come in the form of “a-ha” moments or a release of emotional tension from one’s body, and without these healing moments chances are you can remain in survival mode indefinitely. I often come across women who find themselves somewhere in the limbo of recovery who are “managing” symptoms to get by and yet feel there is much more therapeutic work to be done even after they’ve discharged from treatment centers, and I agree with them. There is more work, and there is more possibility for a better existence. It’s the difference between surviving and thriving.

Sometimes the healing process spans both time and a variety of therapists – where ideally one action builds on the other – but I truly do believe that for most, if not all, full recovery and healing is a possibility; it is an option.

Copyright 2018 ©  Rachel Braun, All rights reserved.

Rachel Braun, ATR-BC  Art Therapist Philadelphia, PA

Specializing in art therapy groups for women who experience depression, anxiety and eating disorders.