Inspiring lifestyles

The healing power of silence

drop of water

By Helen Preston, counsellor and holistic therapist

Last Christmas, my 20 year-old son bought me a book called ‘A Book of Silence’, written by Sara Maitland. In it, she explores and contemplates the silence she experienced after moving out of the city aged 40.

My son and I share a love of silence, so it was a thoughtful gift. We value silence and how it helps to calm and soothe the soul. In a world where it can often seem like a valuable commodity, it is worth taking a little time to explore silence’s healing power and seeing it for the undervalued resource it is.

Mobile devices constantly bombard us with noise. Music, podcasts, videos, phone calls – earphones in and off we go, isolated in our own little world of chosen sound.

At home, we often have the TV or radio on in the background. Or we talk for the sake of talking when there is nothing to say – and where silence could prove a more powerful and meaningful way to be present.

On the long journey driving him back to university, my son and I talk sometimes, but equally importantly we are both very comfortable being together in silence. We share our space comfortably. By way of contrast, some people I know are uncomfortable with silence and feel compelled to fill it with random streams of thought. Albeit unconsciously, they fear it.

Anyone who has listened to Eckhart Tolle will know that he uses silence or pauses to punctuate his language. I found it a little disconcerting when I first began to listen to his audio work. My mind was impatient for the next piece of information, to hear the next word and grasp the next concept.

The voice in my head judged the silences to be irritating. My conditioned mind wanted a continuous stream of noise. It took time to move beyond this situation and really ‘listen’ to both the words and the silence.

All too often we listen to respond, pass judgement or assess how what we are hearing fits with our beliefs. But if we are only prepared to listen to what we already know, we become stuck and entrenched. There is no room for new concepts or ideas. Eckhart says of silence: 

“To listen to the silence, wherever you are, is an easy and direct way of becoming present. Even if there is noise, there is always some silence underneath and in between the sounds. Listening to the silence immediately creates stillness inside you.” (page 103, ‘The Power of Now: A Guide to Spiritual Enlightenment’, New World Library.)

Man in a forest
Photo by Johannes Plenio on Pexels.com

Being mindful

A few years ago, I ran various relaxation and mindfulness groups for teens. During one such session, they were invited to leave their mobile phones behind for an hour and walk in silence with me to a local beauty spot. The idea was to be fully present and to observe the sights and sounds around us.

When we arrived at our destination, we would discuss our experiences. The walk was only between five and eight minutes long, but many of them found it difficult to be in silence. Some giggled, one held her hand over her mouth to remind herself not to speak, and several were unable to help themselves and spoke anyway.

One girl found it easier than the others though. She liked silence and, upon arrival at our destination, shared the fact that she had seen birds, flowers and a cat of which the others had no recollection. She had been quietly present in the moment and enjoyed the experience.

At the end of the sessions, she intimated that she now regularly took the dog for a walk to continue enjoying silence as it made her feel calm, peaceful and relaxed. Although the others initially struggled with the exercise, interestingly they also enjoyed it more than any other form of mindfulness that we practiced.

Certainly, many people find it easier to listen to a guided meditation than to feel safe and calm in silence. It takes time and practice to allow space to creep in between your thoughts, not to follow them as they pop in but just notice to them without judgment and let them pass.

Noise can be a means to help us hide from unpleasant and fearful thoughts, enabling us to avoid our feelings of vulnerability. When we take the time to listen in silence to our inner dialogue though, it is possible to make a choice.

We can either keep beating ourselves up or mindfully change that inner voice from critical and condemning to warm and comforting. ‘You’re doing your best’ is much more positive than ‘you’re an idiot’. But we all run these negative dialogues because we have learned them. It is often someone else’s voice that we hear and someone else’s opinion that we have come to believe over time.

But silence can give us time to weed the garden of our mind, declutter the dark corners in which we hold thoughts of shame and clear a space for the real beauty of our soul to flourish. Imperfection, suffering, making mistakes, failing and feeling inadequate are all part of the human experience. So take a deep breath and listen to the silence, allow it in and become friends with it.

When working with clients, my role as a counsellor is mostly to listen. I listen to the words and the emotions, but also to the silence. Just holding that silence for a few seconds longer than normal can give people the space to access memories, thoughts and images, enabling them to unearth something of significance that would otherwise be lost. And that really is the magic of the healing power of silence.

Helen Preston

Helen Preston is a counsellor, Emotional Freedom Technique (EFT) expert and reiki practitioner. Her approach to therapy acknowledges the crucial inter-relationship of mind, body and spirit. Helen is a member of the National Counselling Society and has an Advanced Diploma in psychotherapy and counselling, a Diploma in Hypnotherapy and an EFT Master Practitioner certificate. 

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Healing approaches

Men’s mental health: Talking about the issues that matter

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

By Helen Preston, counsellor

Over the last few years, there has been a lot of campaigning to highlight issues around men’s mental health. High-profile males from the world of sport, the music and entertainment business as well as the royal family have all been open and honest about their personal struggles with mental wellbeing.

But although such candidness has paved the way for a more honest discussion of male vulnerability, many of my male clients’ report feeling exposed and weak if they share with their family and friends that they are struggling to cope with painful emotional challenges.

Maybe there was a time when ‘man up’ meant ‘shut up’, but I have been pleasantly surprised at how many men actually take the step of coming for counselling – although some do admit to being ‘sent’ by their wives, partners or mothers.

In this instance, they often show initial reluctance to explore their feelings and have little aim other than to appease their loved ones (who are frequently much more aware of the struggle going on within them than they think). But they come along anyway and, with rare exceptions, continue to come.

More recently though, it has been noticeable how many men are referring themselves. Some say that because male mental health issues are spoken about more publicly these days, they feel more confident to seek help.

For example, a recent episode of ITV drama Cold Feet raised the issue of men in counselling and portrayed the process quite positively. Adam, a happy-go-lucky, Jack the Lad character is shown to have unresolved emotional ‘stuff’ going on too.

As a counsellor working with men, it is heartening to see – especially as 75% of people who commit suicide are males, with men between the ages of 45 and 49 the most likely group to take their own life. Nonetheless, figures from the Samaritans show that the male suicide rate in the UK is currently at its lowest in more than 30 years – and those are statistics worth talking about.

During counselling sessions, men are offered a safe and confidential space to discuss their fears and concerns. Many judge themselves harshly as being weak for having negative feelings and angry or fearful emotions. They believe they are the only ones feeling this way and that there is something wrong with them. But counselling helps them recognise that they are not on their own.

Compounding the problem

Unfortunately though, it appears that modern social influences are compounding the problem and making men more fearful. While throughout history, some men have done terrible things, it is certainly not all of them. But feminism, while empowering for women, can feel to men as if it is just about male-bashing.

This situation may account for the popularity of Canadian psychologist, Professor Jordan Peterson. His book ‘12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos’ has been topping best-seller lists for some time, and his YouTube videos are hugely popular with young men. In these works, he explores what is going on for males and why so many of the young ones in particular are so disillusioned.  

One of the key issues here is that, with all of the social change that has taken place over the last 40 years, men are now unsure of how to behave. Is holding open a door for a woman polite or an insult? Is paying for dinner still a ‘requirement’ or out of step with ideals of sexual equality? Is it OK to approach a woman in a bar and complement her on how she looks (when she has obviously taken the time to look good) or is that too intrusive?

The most surprising thing for me as a female on becoming a counsellor was just how much boys and young men have to deal with. Almost all the teenagers I have worked with suffer from anxiety and depression. There is a general lack of self-confidence and self-belief.

Fear of failure is also a big issue, even with young men who are bright and achieving well academically. But the biggest revelation of all was the levels of shame they experience. Shame is a big one for everyone to deal with, but social media seems to make it almost unbearable. There was a time when mistakes could be made in private and lessons learned quietly, but not any more.

The young men I work with tell me that they find relationships a minefield. They fear being publicly humiliated and shamed by girls they have dated or have chatted with online. Boys have feelings too, and some girls can be incredibly hurtful.

Then there is the beauty industry. Having saturated the female market, it has now moved onto males, resulting in boys being exposed, and conditioned to conform, to the same unreal images. As a result, boys are more insecure than ever about how they look, with eating disorders, self-harming, anxiety and depression all becoming more common.

Strength

Sharing emotional struggles

However, talking therapies give men an opportunity to know and understand themselves better, to explore what is real, to find solutions and to make positive changes. It is about reframing past negative experiences.

Most importantly, they can also spend time in a space where there is no judgment – and in a world where they feel constantly judged, that can feel very liberating. It is possible to explore what is going on for them in a safe environment in order to understand what is bringing about their mental struggles, which often manifests itself in physical pain.

Key questions include: what does being a man mean to them? Where did they learn about what being a man is and are there ways of doing things that feel more authentic for them? In terms of role models, some of my older male clients are still doing what they were taught when they were brought up, even though it does not bring them, or those around them, either satisfaction or happiness.

Indeed, too many experience loneliness, even if they are in long-term relationships. Key challenges include family pressures; being the main provider; supporting a spouse while still trying to focus on work; fear of losing their job or of re-entering the workplace following time out after redundancy or illness, and anxiety that if they confide in their partner about how they feel they will be seen as weak and not manly enough.

In general, women find it easier to share their emotional struggles with each other. But men often don’t. Some, for various reasons, lose the group of friends they once had and find it hard to make new ones – which is why counselling can be such an important avenue towards supporting their metal wellbeing.

So let’s keep on talking about these issues. Let’s make it more acceptable for men to talk to a counsellor in non-judgemental confidence about their particular struggles. Let’s help them understand that there are ways to move beyond what may seem like impossible obstacles, and that talking about it out loud can help.

With this in mind, if you know a man who is struggling, take a moment to ask him if he’s really OK. Just encourage him to talk because it really can make a world of difference.

Helen Preston

Helen Preston is a counsellor, Emotional Freedom Technique (EFT) expert and reiki practitioner. Her approach to therapy acknowledges the crucial inter-relationship of mind, body and spirit. Helen is a member of the National Counselling Society and has an Advanced Diploma in psychotherapy and counselling, a Diploma in Hypnotherapy and an EFT Master Practitioner certificate. 

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Learning how to grieve, heal and grow

Loss and grief

By Helen Preston, counsellor

Grief manifests itself in many ways but is not necessarily a very easy thing to describe. According to the dictionary definition, it consists of:

“Intense sorrow, especially caused by someone’s death. ‘She was overcome with grief.’ Sorrow, misery, sadness, anguish, pain, distress, agony, torment, affliction, suffering, heartache, heartbreak, broken-heartedness, heaviness of heart, woe, desolation, despondency, dejection, despair, angst, mortification.”

Grief can also express itself in a number of ways. It can take the form of an emotional, physical, behavioural or cognitive response. For example, at an emotional level, a grieving person may feel shock, yearning, helplessness, relief or guilt.

Common physical sensations include a hollowness in the stomach, tightness in the throat, breathlessness or lack of energy. In behavioural terms, grief may manifest itself in the form of disturbed sleep, crying, absent-mindedness, a feeling of searching or reliance on drugs or alcohol. Cognitive responses could include feelings of disbelief, confusion, general preoccupation and even hallucinations.

But it is worth bearing in mind that death is not the only cause of grief. Other situations that also spark this emotion include divorce, the ending of important relationships, losing a job, moving away from the place you grew up, leaving a school in which you were happy, becoming disabled or losing your home.

Most people are able to process their grief naturally and, while they may experience intense bouts of sadness, they can still feel hope and will eventually find happiness again. That said, there is no right way to grieve. Even though rifts are created in some families because members make judgements over others on what grieving should look like, in reality, each individual has to find their own path and what works best for them.

It is common to hear of the five stages of grief first identified by Swiss psychiatrist Elisabeth Kubler Ross in her ground-breaking book, ‘On Death and Dying’, which was published in 1969. These stages consist of denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance.

Author and expert David Kessler also discussed the possibility of a sixth stage – that of ‘meaning’. But it is important to recognise that not everyone will experience all of these stages, and they can appear in no particular order, maybe more than once.

Strength

How counselling can help

Experiencing grief can be a confusing and emotional time. It often feels isolating and scary, but speaking to someone else about how you feel can help you process your emotions. It can also help to reassure you that what you are going through is ‘normal’ and you are not you going mad.

In particular, if you continue to experience grief over a long period of time, you might benefit from support to help you process the emotion in a healthier way. Maybe you did not have the time or opportunity to process it when your loss took place, but it may still be affecting you in some way. You may feel depressed or stuck.

Immediately following a loss, there are generally lots of distractions and plenty of support. But then the dust settles, people go back to their busy lives and presume you are fine. You do not want to ‘burden’ your friends with your sad feelings and so say you feel OK when you do not.

It is here that counselling comes in. Counsellors are trained to listen without judgment, to empathise rather than sympathise. Moreover, speaking your feelings out loud may help you to make sense of them.

There are many instances when a grieving person may need support to find a way through the dark times and discover meaning in life again – and grief related to suicide is one of those. There are so many additional emotions and complications that are linked to this situation, not least the social judgments that are all too often made.

It can be hard for friends to support this type of grief and to realise that the grieving person needs a voice rather than to feel silenced by the discomfort of others. In Western culture, we find talking about death tricky at the best of times. But when someone choses to end their own life, we tend to draw conclusions that only serve to perpetuate the myths, while failing to help the sufferer get any closer to the often unanswerable question of ‘why’?

Other circumstances that can have a particular impact on grievers include losing a child or young person or suffering a sudden and unexpected loss or death.

Life coaching motivation and self realization concept in blue

Learning to heal and grow

To sum up, here are some apt but poignant words that have been adapted by a member of Compassionate Friends USA:

If you think you are going mad – that’s normal

If all you do is cry – that’s normal

If you have trouble with most minor decisions – that’s normal

If you can’t taste your food or have no appetite – that’s normal

If you feel rage, denial, depression – that’s normal

If you find yourself enjoying a funny moment and then feel guilty – that’s normal

If you feel angry when someone says “it was God’s will” – that’s normal

If you can’t talk about it but can smash dishes and kick the dustbin – that’s normal

If you can share your story with an understanding listener – that’s a beginning

If you can get a glimpse of the person’s life rather than their death – that’s wonderful

If you can remember with a smile – that’s healing

If you find your mirrors have become windows and you can reach out to another bereaved person – that’s growing.

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Helen Preston is a counsellor, Emotional Freedom Technique (EFT) expert and reiki practitioner. Her approach to therapy acknowledges the crucial inter-relationship of mind, body and spirit. Helen is a member of the National Counselling Society and has an Advanced Diploma in psychotherapy and counselling, a Diploma in Hypnotherapy and an EFT Master Practitioner certificate.

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Healing approaches

Counselling: Answers to frequently-asked questions

person wearing black zip hoodie sitting in front of gray wooden plank wall during nighttime
Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

By Helen Preston, counsellor.

Counselling can prove to be a confusing and anxiety-provoking experience if you are new to it and do not know what to expect. So here are some answers to a number of frequently-asked questions to help you on your way:

Why go to a counsellor?

There are many reasons why you may want to speak to a counsellor. We are all human and things can be difficult. Certainly, it is unlikely you will be able to move through your entire life without facing some challenges.

The benefit of a counsellor in this scenario is that they will ‘walk beside you’ during the most trying times. They will sit with you in your grief, pain, frustration, confusion and desperation and be there to hear you – really hear you.

They will listen to you in a way that your friends and family are unable to do. They will attend to what you are saying compassionately and look upon your situation with gentle eyes, not offering answers but helping you find your own solutions.

Experiencing isolation can be soul-destroying. Feeling like a failure because you are unable to find your way out of your difficulties is a commonplace experience. Life is messy and humans are complex, but thankfully we are not our problems. We are far more than that. We can thrive despite the greatest setbacks and the most devastating experiences. Even if it is not possible to change the situation, counselling can help lead you to acceptance.

If your thoughts keep traveling back to the past and you continue wishing that things had been different, it can lead to low moods and depression. If your thoughts constantly look to the future and you imagine thousands of different scenarios, most of which will never happen, it can cause fear, anxiety and depression.

Counselling helps you to become more aware of where your thoughts are taking you, which in turn offers you more choices. Although we are much more than our thoughts alone, if we spend all day in our heads, it can feel like a lonely and scary place to be. Sharing these thoughts can be a liberating experience. While it is not easy, if you can find the right counsellor for you, it could prove easier than you think.

How do I find a counsellor?

Where can you turn to if you need help with a specific issue, whether past or present? Who can you trust with that hurt or vulnerable side of yourself you have been afraid to share with friends or loved ones? How can you know for certain that you will not be judged?

These are usually the first questions that people ask themselves when considering counselling. But the role of a therapist is to provide a safe, non-judgmental space for you to explore your feelings and to say out loud what you have been keeping locked away inside, often for a long time.

If you type the word ‘counselling’ into a search engine, you will see lots of options. Go with your instinct. Who feels right for you? Understand that you are in the driving seat and can decide to end counselling sessions or chose a different therapist at any time.

The relationship that you build with your counsellor will be one of the keys to successful therapy. It is one built on trust and mutual respect that develops and grows over the time of your sessions together.

It gives you a place to be seen and heard for exactly who you are without having to think about how your words are affecting the other person. That other person, your counsellor, will never try and make you take responsibility for their feelings in a way that a loved one can. They will never impose their opinion on you in the way a friend may do. That is why therapy can prove to be such a liberating and healing experience.

Strength
Strength

What is the best type of counselling for me?

It can be quite confusing for people when they read different counsellor’s profiles and see that different professionals offer different types of therapy. While counsellors will be familiar with specialist terminology, it might not be quite so clear to everyone else what cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT), or a person-centred approach, comprise, or how they might help you.

But if you take a bit of time to explore each counsellor’s profile, you will see they will list the kinds of issues and conditions they deal with. My suggestion would be to call or send them a short email setting out the challenge you are looking for help with. Ask if it is something they have experience in and if they believe they have the skills to support you.

An overview of various types of therapy

CBT was developed to deal with the here and now. It focuses on an individual’s thoughts, which can dictate feelings and subsequent actions. In brief, the theory is that if you can change someone’s thoughts, their feelings will become more positive and their actions easier.

The NHS offers online CBT courses that are short but can be very useful for some people. Recognising that it is your own thoughts that are sabotaging you can be very empowering, but it does not work for everyone.

For some people, past experiences have created certain patterns of thought, which their subconscious mind remembers, even if their conscious mind fails to do so. The subconscious attempts to protect us and may hold onto these thoughts, which is why exploring the past and understanding the impact it has had on you can be a vital part of therapy. This approach is called psychoanalysis or psychotherapy.

But for any therapist to understand a client’s issues, it is vital that they really listen deeply to what is being said without judgment and with a positive regard for the individual. This approach, which forms the basis of ‘person-centred’ therapy, also involves noticing a client’s body language and how they react emotionally to what is being said.

The integrated approach, meanwhile, takes all of these therapy types and uses whichever is appropriate to meet a client’s needs at the time. So an individual’s presenting issue will be explored in the context of the past and then the future in order to help them understand themselves and their choices more fully.

Clients often become stuck because they believe they have fewer choices available to them than is actually the case. But counselling can help them uncover more options by lifting the blocks created by set ways of thinking. It is often possible to discover a solution that was in fact always there but simply hidden away without them knowing.

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Helen Preston is a counsellor, Emotional Freedom Technique (EFT) expert and reiki practitioner. Her approach to therapy acknowledges the crucial inter-relationship of mind, body and spirit. Helen is a member of the National Counselling Society and has an Advanced Diploma in psychotherapy and counselling, a Diploma in Hypnotherapy and an EFT Master Practitioner certificate.

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Inspiring spaces

The perfect idyll: Finding some Breathing Space

Sunset
Sunset

By Helen Preston, counsellor.

I love being outside in nature, feeling a breeze on my skin as I start to let go of the day. As I surround myself with the miracles of the natural world, I know that I am part of a perfect cycle of new life, growth and completion. I can breathe deeply and connect to a source of healing much bigger than myself.

I particularly love the forests and the fields with trickling streams. I love British coastlines, the sea and the sand, beaches offering up tiny treasures such as a perfectly-shaped pebble that fits in the palm of your hand feeling cool and smooth.

I love the mountainous landscape of the Scottish Highlands and the rolling Welsh hills of home. It was growing up in Wales and spending my childhood outdoors that gave me such an appreciation of it all. It was my playground, real and ever-changing.

Idyllic retreat

So I count myself very lucky to have found a rural idyll in peaceful Norfolk, a women-only retreat that is aptly named ‘Breathing Space’. The building used to be an old rectory and has a large farmhouse kitchen, which is perfect for gathering in to share food and meet the other guests.

It immediately feels like home as you are invited to treat it as such from the moment you arrive. There is something special about being trusted as if you were an old friend. Some of the other nine visitors I met had been before many times, while others, like me, were experiencing it for the first time.

Although none of us had met before, there was an acceptance that we were stepping out of our everyday lives and could just be ourselves. Some, like me, were staying for one night, while others lingered for a few days.

Breathing Space
Breathing Space

A rare gift

One lady was a nurse, another a spiritual co-ordinator at a hospice. One woman had lost her husband. Several worked in the corporate world. One was self-employed and worked long hours. But we all were there to nurture themselves. Women often specialise in giving too much or think they need to be superwoman. The lady who had lost her husband had returned to work the day after his funeral but had never really grieved….

We all bonded swiftly over coffee and again later over dinner as we shared our stories and laughed together. One lady cried but did not feel she had to apologise or leave. She could just feel her feelings within the group.

It a rare gift to be able to be who you are in your sadness and express it by your tears without judgment or comment. Hugs are good but they are sometimes the last thing someone needs. Hugs can say: ‘There, there, don’t be sad. Wipe away your tears’, but maybe it is the opposite that is required.

Private space

At Breathing Space, you can stay in a former shepherd’s hut in the large garden. Set away from the house, it offers a ‘camping’ experience but in comfort. It was a quirky space and one that you could take yourself off to be completely away from everyone else if you needed it.

But I chose one of the rooms within the house, each of which is individually decorated and equally beautiful and comfortable. I loved the many personal touches: the lovely toiletries, the many and varied pictures that hung on the walls, the salt lamps and crystals, the sayings and little notes. A note on my bathroom mirror said: ‘You are beautiful’.

The kitchen was homely and inviting, housing a large dresser adorned with objects all imbued with special meaning. The lounge had two squishy sofas with blankets to cuddle up in and a log burner for cosiness in the winter.

Breathing Space's kitchen
Breathing Space’s kitchen

Pamper space

Several log cabins in the garden provided space for yoga and other group activities. You can book a range of holistic therapies, which are provided in a cabin overlooking a small lake. It is a perfect setting in which to relax and be pampered.

It was on the decking of this cabin that I chose to sit for my early morning meditation and yoga practice. Sitting there, watching the dragonflies skim the water, I felt completely at peace and at one with nature.

I did not booked a treatment this time but would most definitely do so next time. One lady appeared to float across the grass after experiencing an hour each of reflexology and Indian Head Massage. She still looked blissfully relaxed several hours later at dinner.

Slowing down

Time seemed to slow down the moment I arrived there. Just a few miles from the beach and a wetland reserve, there were no end of places to visit. Walking through the nature reserve, I was joined by a multitude of butterflies, damson flies and dragonflies. The sky was clear blue and the sun was warm. A gentle breeze cooled the air as I walked for hours in this watery wonderland, listening to the sounds of the birds. Every bit of tension slipped quietly away.

In the evening at sunset, I sat on the beach and listened to the lapping of the waves, feeling the warm sand beneath my feet. As the sun gradually slid below the horizon, the sky became infused with hues of red and orange. Still warm, still quiet and peaceful, it was the perfect end to a perfect day.

Because this retreat is special – it is a wonderful place to step out of the stresses and strains of everyday life and simply be. After all, we all need a bit of breathing space sometimes.

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Helen Preston is a counsellor, Emotional Freedom Technique (EFT) expert and reiki practitioner. Her approach to therapy acknowledges the crucial inter-relationship of mind, body and spirit. Helen is a member of the National Counselling Society and has an Advanced Diploma in psychotherapy and counselling, a Diploma in Hypnotherapy and an EFT Master Practitioner certificate.