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When sleepiness enters the therapy session

Like Sleeping Beauty awakened by the kiss of a prince, the therapeutic process can be seen as a process of awakening or making conscious what has been unconscious.

Which makes the topic of sleepiness in therapy sessions interesting. I sometimes find myself feeling unexpectedly tired in a therapy session. I may even suppress a yawn.

When this happens I usually feel a little embarrassed and may try and hide my sleepiness from the client. After all, who wants to see a therapist who seems like they’re about to nod off?

But I’ve discovered, over many years, that sleepiness is often an indicator that something else is going on in the session at an unconscious level.

First of all, I’ll ask myself if there’s any external reason for me feeling like this, such as having had a bad night’s sleep. Usually this is not the case.

Having eliminated other possibilities I can then turn my attention to what is happening with this particular client and what is going on in the session.

I’ve sometimes tried to hide my sleepiness from the client but have found that the nature of therapy is that each person is continually picking up subtle and non-verbal information from the other. Hiding a yawn or dropping eyelids is almost impossible.

What I’ve discovered is that when sleepiness arrives it signifies that something is being repressed or “squashed” in the session. It is usually a powerful emotion such as anger. 

I think the reason for the sleepiness is that if we are unconsciously repressing a strong emotion such as anger it has an effect on the energy in the room. I sometimes think of this as being like holding a beach ball under the water – the effort required in holding the ball under the water is a drain on the rest of the body.

In the same way if a powerful emotion like anger is being “held under the water” it has an effect on the energy in the room and that can translate into me feeling sleepy.

This can also happen in the individual’s own life – disowned anger can lead to a kind of energy-sapping depression.

When I acknowledge my sleepiness and begin a conversation with the client about what might be going on, often the sleepiness disappears. Naming what is going on has an effect on the energy in the session.

We can then explore whether the client may have other, less conscious or less “acceptable” feelings about the topic they are discussing. We don’t need to somehow resolve the issue but instead we enquire into what may be happening. 

Having that discussion can open up new perspectives about the client’s experience and relationship with his or her emotions.

Image Creative Commons license, courtesy of Tomas https://www.flickr.com/photos/tma/2438467223

For more information visit http://www.patrickmccurrycounselling.co.uk

By Patrick McCurry

I'm a psychotherapist based in Canary Wharf, London, and Eastbourne, UK.

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