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Into The Forest Of Fears

Friday, April 29th, 2005

A therapeutic system uses metaphors like woods, caves and gelatin to deal with inner defences.

The goal is to develop a state of calmness as a foundation for coping, by Janice Mawhinney

John Barban didn’t know what to expect in his first session with Toronto psychotherapist Nicola Bird, but he sure didn’t think he’d be encouraged to enter dark, scary woods that could be the setting for a horror film.

Barban, 30, was feeling a lot of stress and anxiety around the challenges of starting a new business in wellness consulting in Guelph, and a naturopath had suggested he see Bird.

Bird asked him to close his eyes and take a few deep breaths, then focus his attention inside himself and see what images came to him as she asked questions in a free-flowing meditation session. Before long, Barban felt that he was standing at the edge of a forest that felt very threatening to him.

“It was dark and I didn’t want to go into it,” he recalls. “I wanted to be anywhere else but there.” Bird encouraged him to go into the forest and explore what he was trying to get away from. “When I went in and looked around, I found that there was nothing really frightening to me there — it had just been my perceptions that were frightening,” he says.”It really helped me to address the problem, and to move forward. This is one of the most useful tools I’ve come across.”

It’s not unusual for Bird to encourage her clients to walk into dark, scary forests, to explore deep caves, or deal with restrictive surroundings made of rock, plastic, metal or steel. There are frequently jagged, rough edges to deal with. There may be rubber, tar or glue. “Gelatin is very popular, too,” she says. “Something is keeping them stuck. And in this modern society, there are so many people living in caves full of stalactites and stalagmites.” These are all common metaphors for people’s inner defences which often hold them back from doing what they want to do, she says. Many seem to be universal archetypes.

Bird, 39, developed a system she calls Self-Imaging Therapy to identify an individual’s personal metaphors for these defences, and to find ways to deal with them effectively. The website www.selfimagingtherapy.com describes the technique.

Bird believes the system works in the same way that a person salivates whether actually eating a mango, or concentrating on the idea of eating a mango. The mental image of the mango creates a visceral experience like the one triggered by the real thing. Similarly, she believes, the inner self can respond to images to make positive changes in feelings, thoughts or attitudes. She can communicate with a client’s inner self through an image, she says, and ask where in the individual’s life or personality the problem comes from.

“Then we can change the unhealthy images, feelings or thoughts. When you let them go, it allows you to get in touch with more positive inner images and healthier states.”It’s often a matter of learning to master inner defences, she says. “I draw you into the images that represent your hurt, anger, depression and other difficult feelings. They are there to protect you, but what you use to protect yourself becomes the problem. We break down the defences and cultivate healthier parts of you. “We can learn healthy defences. Calm is more protective than anxiety is. Calm is a good foundation — from there you can connect with other healthy parts of yourself.”

Bird refined her technique as part of her Ph.D program at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education (OISE), but Self-Imaging Therapy had its roots many years before that, she says, in her early childhood in Antigua.”I’ve always thought in metaphor,” she explains. “As a child I talked all the time about my dreams. No one paid any attention to it.”

She eventually learned meditation techniques and joined a group, finding that during meditation she was aware of a steady stream of images and metaphors. When she went through a painful divorce, she kept close watch on the metaphors in her dreams and her meditative images. “I noticed changes and I began to develop theories,” she says. “I asked: if this represents the self, then how can we create change?”

A breakthrough came accidentally. Bird had been doing energy work for friends, similar to reiki or therapeutic touch. A woman she knew asked her to do this, and during the treatment became traumatized from a metaphor that arose representing a sexual assault she had suffered earlier in her life.

“I couldn’t leave her traumatized,” says Bird. She helped the woman reconstruct the image of the experience, changing the story so that instead of being victimized, she conquered the trauma and fear. “That was so effective for her that she wanted more,” says Bird. “Then her friend came and wanted this, too. Then they had other friends. That’s how all this started.”

In the 10 years she has been practising Self-Imaging Therapy, she has worked with hundreds of clients, some in person and others through telephone sessions. Bird says she recognizes when someone has a serious mental illness that requires medical help instead and immediately refers that individual to a physician. Sometimes people aren’t comfortable with this form of therapy, and don’t come back after the first session. “It’s all self-monitored,” Bird points out. “If it’s not right for them, they know.”

Most want to continue, she says. Some resolve their issues to their satisfaction in a few visits while others choose to keep coming for long periods of time. Fear-based defences create tension in the mind and the body, according to Bird. They get in the way of healing, and create emotional and physical imbalances.”We can’t get rid of our defences,” she says. “You need to create coping mechanisms that support your system instead of depleting, diminishing or disturbing it. The mechanisms help you to have healthy defences instead of the fear-based kind.”

Elizabeth Ridgely, a faculty member at the University of Toronto department of psychiatry, family therapist and executive director of the George Hull Centre for Children and Families, says she doesn’t know Bird and the form of therapy she has devised, but the techniques she uses are not unusual. Meditation techniques are often useful in treating anxiety disorders, she observes, and metaphor and images are well-used agents in therapy.

“Bird is well-educated and her ability to think in metaphor is a gift,” says Ridgely. “Her experience allows her to recognize serious mental illness and refer to psychiatry. I accept her experience that Self-Imaging Therapy can be useful.” Therapy comes in many forms, she notes. “There is no therapy body to say that this therapy is better than that therapy. Outcome studies are few and far between.”

Ridgely does, though, caution individuals seeking a suitable form of therapy to take a referral only from someone credible — “not someone you met on the dance floor, but someone you know and trust.”

Toronto Star