10 Reasons to Choose Email Counselling (and 3 Reasons Not to)

The world is changing fast, and counselling is too. Below are ten reasons many individuals find that email counselling can be therapeutic during times of need. (Scroll down to find three reasons NOT to choose email counselling!)

  1. You can communicate with your counsellor when you need to, rather than waiting for their schedule to open. You can write a letter, or review a past letter. Your counsellor isn’t present, but taking the time and space to write to them means that you are reflecting and working on solving your own problems.
  2. You don’t need to set aside a whole hour all at once. You can write, read, review and reflect bit by bit over time. In fact, counsellors who do this work encourage it!
  3. Conversely, you can take longer than an hour if you need to! There is no need to fit your whole story, and all your complicated emotions, into 50-60 minutes. You can take the time you need to compose your thoughts before you press “send”.
  4. There is no parking, gas money, time off work, or travel time to worry about.
  5. If you are housebound or live in a remote community, online counselling can be an ideal option.
  6. Email counselling affords you increased anonymity; many people find it much easier to lower inhibitions and talk about difficult subjects in a letter.
  7. Email counselling is private. There is no chance that someone will see your car, or that you will bump into someone you know. No one will see you walk into a counselling office. Unlike video counselling, there is no chance that someone will overhear.
  8. You have the option of having a permanent written record of everything you and your counsellor have to say over time. It is like keeping a personal journal, except that you are communicating with a professional. This can be helpful to track changes, or as a source of encouragement when you are feeling low. Various parts of your letters might only become meaningful later.
  9. You save money. Even though you get to spend more time sharing your story, and the counsellor still spends an hour writing their reply, email counselling is often a bit cheaper, as there is less overhead involved in providing services to you. You may even save money as you may not have to return to your counsellor for a refresher if similar problems return – you just have to go back to your letters.
  10. By setting aside the time to sit down and write (rather than attend an appointment at a certain time) you are forced to take ownership over your own healing process. You aren’t doing it because it’s what your counsellor expects, you are doing it for yourself!

Still wondering if counselling by email can really help you heal and create change? Check out this blog posting.

Why NOT Counselling by Email?

Online counselling is not for everyone.

  1. If you may be at risk of violence (or of hurting someone yourself) or are feeling suicidal, you need to access more immediate face to face counselling in your local community.
  2. If you feel overwhelmed by strong emotions and unable to manage them on your own, you should not choose online counselling.
  3. You may require more specialist medical treatment than what online counselling can provide, especially if you have been diagnosed with psychosis or an eating disorder.

Keep in mind that my responses are not immediate. Typically, my commitment is to respond within two of my business days. For more immediate choices, keep an eye out for RSCC Resources page (coming soon).

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An Intro to Watching Movies as Therapy

I love going to the movies, don’t you!? Movies make you feel things. “Who has not walked out of a movie theatre feeling sad, scared, inspired, or otherwise moved? Movies can potentially open a person’s eyes to new solutions to any number of difficulties. … They might offer hope, provide role models, and reframe problems” (from goodtherapy.org).

Hmm. Kinda sounds like counselling, doesn’t it?

This post marks an introduction to an upcoming blog series on “Cinematherapy” (or movie therapy). In the series, I will be recommending and reviewing a different movie each time. The only rule: the plot or theme of each movie will touch on something related to relationships, mental health and/or social issues.

I’m excited! Okay, let’s get started … (if you have come to this post just to see the directions how to watch a movie mindfully, please scroll down).

Background

The term cinematherapy has been used since the 1990’s, and is a close cousin of “bibliotherapy”. (Books make you feel things too!) According to Segen’s Medical Dictionary, “Cinematherapy can be a catalyst for healing and growth for those who are open to learning how movies affect people and to watching certain films with conscious awareness.”

Read those last words again. “… those who are open to … watching certain films with conscious awareness.”

How the heck do you do that?

Dr Birgit Wolz, a current guru in this field, acknowledges that it is easy to get caught up in the entertainment and forget to watch mindfully. She answers one viewer’s question: “What you are saying about movies is true for life in general. We often get “caught up” in things and become conscious only later when we look back. … Like in real life, your conscious awareness will increase and decrease at times. Learning to have control over this will benefit you greatly in life.”

Back in the mid-1990’s, I was a Drug Prevention Worker at a high school in northern BC. I didn’t know there was such a thing as cinematherapy, but I knew that teens liked watching movies! So I organized groups where they could come watch movies related to problem drug and alcohol use. When choosing the movies (before Netflix and Youtube) I looked for stories which were relevant to their lives. I also created suggested lists they could take home and use. My hope was that I could engage them in honest conversation about substance abuse, rather than teaching remote facts that did not connect with their everyday experiences.

How Can Cinematherapy Help?

While the research is still ongoing, here is a summary of what I and the current practitioners in the field believe:

  1. Watching a movie (or talking about a movie) with someone you don’t know very well can help build a rapport. It is an easy way to build a connection with someone (including your counsellor).
  2. How you respond to a character or a plot point in a movie can help you learn about yourself. Because talking about the movie is less threatening than talking about yourself, it’s a “way in” to the stuff you may find quite challenging otherwise. This helps to strengthen self-awareness. (*Note: most of the reflections questions below are designed to help in this area.)
  3. Talking about a movie with someone that you otherwise experience communication challenges with can help to build your communication skills.
  4. You’ve heard about feeling better after “a good cry”. Watching movies that make us laugh or cry can provide a cathartic emotional release. This can be a useful first step to therapy or counselling.
  5. Movies show us what is going on behind a character’s surface. We learn something about “why” they behave as they do. As viewers, we go along for the ride, walking beside them on a part of their journey. All of this helps to generate an empathic response – something we need a little more of in our everyday lives.
  6. Movies fight shame and stigma when they are about the lives of people who are marginalized or otherwise invisible. The recent popularity of transgender individuals in Hollywood is one example.

How to Watch a Movie with Mindful Awareness

Before you begin, find a comfortable spot. Pause. Take a moment to notice your breathing. It should be easy, and natural. Don’t force it. Do a quick body scan. Then if you notice any spots where you feel stress or tightness, acknowledge them. Dr Wolz writes, “Let your breath travel into these spots. To release tension you may experiment with ‘breathing into’ any part of your body that feels strained.” For now, set your judgements aside.

While watching, pay attention both to the movie and to your own physiological reactions. Observe whatever is happening – whether your heart is speeding up, or the pace of your breathing is changing. Do your best not to judge or analyze. Just “be fully present with your experience”.

The following are questions that cinematherapy.com suggests you ask yourself when the movie is finished. If you like, it can be useful to record your answers.

  1. Do you remember whether your breathing changed throughout the movie? Could this be an indication that something threw you off balance? In all likelihood, what affects you in the film is similar to whatever unbalances you in your daily life.
  2. Ask yourself: If a part of the film that moved you (positively or negatively) had been one of your dreams, how would you have understood the symbolism in it?
  3. Notice what you liked and what you didn’t like or even hated about the movie. Which characters or actions seemed especially attractive or unattractive to you? Did you identify with one or several characters? 
  4. Were there one or several characters in the movie that modelled behaviour that you would like to emulate? Did they develop certain strengths or other capacities that you would like to develop as well? 
  5. Notice whether any aspect of the film was especially hard to watch. Could this be related to something that you might have repressed (“shadow”)? Uncovering repressed aspects of our psyche can free up positive qualities and uncover our more whole and authentic self.
  6. Did you experience something that connected you to your inner wisdom or higher self as you watched the film?

I have to give grateful credit for these instructions as they have come from Dr Birgit Wolz, at www.cinematherapy.com. Although I struggled a bit with the layout, what a gold mine of content her website is! (She has in turn based portions of these instructions on Sinetar, Marsha (1993) Reel Power & Spiritual Growth Through Film. Ligouri, MO: Triumph Books.)

Finally … A Warning

Cinematherapy is an “add-on” therapy, much like art, music, or dance therapy. Similarly, it can be used as a self-help technique or with a counsellor. However, our problems show up in a spectrum. Self-help can be useful for problems that do not require a counsellor, but sometimes other expert eyes can be useful. If the problem is more severe, do not use cinematherapy in place of a trained counsellor!

The questions for reflection above encourage you to open yourself up to those uncomfortable thoughts and emotions that you might be closed off from. But watch out for negative triggers! Sometimes it can be too much. Make sure you have access to emotional support if necessary. If you end up feeling overwhelmed, is there someone you can talk to about it? (Or even get a hug from?)

Finally, there are no known contraindications for cinematherapy among most people. However, it is not advisable or helpful if there is a history of psychosis.

Further Reading

E-Motion Picture Magic: A Movie Lovers Guide to Healing and Transformation Birgit Wolz (2005)

Rent Two Films and Let’s talk in the Morning: Using Popular Movies as Psychotherapy John W. Hesley; Jan G. Hesley (2001)

Advanced Cinematherapy: the Girl’s Guide to Finding Happiness One Movie at a Time Nancy Peske; Beverly West (2000)

The Motion Picture Prescription: Watch This Movie and Call me in the Morning Gary Solomon (1995)