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The Quicksand Trap: A Key Reframe In Stress Management Coaching & Therapy

Reframing is a key skill for coaches and therapists. It means taking a problem and recasting it in a new way – seeing it in a different light or from a new perspective. Here's an example: In the 2011 Masters golf tournament, Rory McIlroy went into the final day with a good lead – but he blew it. He had what's been described as a meltdown, and failed to win the competition – presumably because nerves got the better of him. Later he described that day as the most important day of his career.

That's a reframe. Actually top sports people do it a lot. Basically he turned an abject failure into something of real value – the value being that he realised he had to learn to handle pressure, and indeed his career since then suggests he did learn.

Of course he still lost that day – the reframe didn't change the fact of the matter, but he changed the story in his head, to one where he may actually have felt quite grateful that it happened to him.

So reframing is useful for problems or situations where there seems to be no solution – they look like no-win situations. You're taking the same facts of the matter, but re-interpreting them so they have a different meaning or significance.

A really powerful class of reframes is to shift the frame of reference from an insoluble problem, to a different but related problem that is soluble.

In an earlier article of this series I described stress resilience as a set of mind-body skills. Behind this idea is a key reframe, perhaps the most important and fundamental reframe I can offer. The reframe is this:

The real goal is not to get rid of or avoid anxiety (essentially, an insoluble problem) but rather to develop the ability to recover quickly and easily (= stress resilience). Resilience is a skill-set that can be trained and developed.

(I can't help adding at this point that biofeedback is an ideal for doing so.)

In my work with biofeedback, I use a number of other “stock” reframes that I consider essential to success with biofeedback.

This article focuses on one of them, which I borrowed from the Acceptance & Commitment Therapy (ACT) school: the “quicksand trap” metaphor. Future articles in this series will offer you more reframes that you can adapt to your own client work.

The Quicksand Trap Metaphor

Again, the problem of how to get rid of anxiety is essentially an insoluble one. Anxiety is a human emotion, not a disease.

The quicksand trap metaphor likens the experience of anxiety to getting caught in quicksand. If you struggle, you sink; if you stop struggling, you float. As a reframe it's saying the real problem isn't anxiety as an emotion, but your coping strategy. Trying to avoid or resist or suppress anxiety doesn't tend to work (except for mild cases) but more likely makes anxiety worse, by feeding its energy in some way.

The quicksand trap is a metaphor for any situation like this, where trying harder makes things worse not better. Again, you don't sink unless you struggle.

Quicksand-trap situations can crop up a lot in life. (For instance I imagine Rory McIlroy putting himself under enormous pressure to sink his putts, because he realised the importance.)

An example we can probably all relate to is sleep. You've got a big day tomorrow, maybe getting up early, and you want to make sure you're refreshed. You're lying in bed, but sleep is just not happening. The more you want sleep, the further away it seems to be. The more you fret about not getting to sleep, the further away it seems to be.

For an ACT practitioner, the aim of therapy (for anxiety) becomes to help the client develop more effective coping strategies.

For clients with an avoidant coping strategy, the quicksand dynamic is extremely likely to come up in the context of working with biofeedback. For example, they feel a sense of urgency to make a muscle tension graph come down. Maybe even some “performance anxiety”, since I'm there watching. The result: the graph goes up not down.

Actually I think this is one of the key strengths of biofeedback as a tool for therapy or coaching: it makes the quicksand dynamic blatantly apparent. Clients really get to see the nature of it.

More generally, biofeedback is a vehicle for offering clients insight into the nature of the mind, and of emotions in particular. With biofeedback the practitioner is demonstrating the reality of the mind-body connection (the idea that how you think, feel and act is reflected in physiology, and vice versa). Biofeedback turns it from an abstract concept to something they need to work with and learn about.

Some of the other key reframes I use build on the quicksand trap metaphor, offering more practical strategies for working with the mind so as to avoid quicksand. More about these coming up in future articles in this series.

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