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Christine Forte May 28, 2020

Counseling in a Time of COVID-19: Ways to Deal with Frustration

For most of us, expressions of frustration from clients have likely become a very present feature of our sessions. Frustration can have even become an all too present part of our own experiences. The anxiety of the unknown that was such an intense feature of the first weeks of the pandemic in the US has often by now given way to fatigue and frustration. We want desperately for our situations to be something different from what they are and this creates distress.

And so how can we help our clients with an emotion that we ourselves are likely also grappling with? As always, we start with seeking to understand and empathize with their feelings. Helping someone to feel seen and understood can go a long way. But we may find a desire to go beyond that as well, to in the moment, build experiential strategies for dealing with the feelings that can even be reused in between or after sessions.

This is where I find doing some guided meditation, breathwork, or focusing exercises can be so useful. There are many varieties of this, but the aim is the same: to help in down regulating the intensity of internal experiences so that we can feel calmer and more grounded. Here are some things to try or keep in mind when implementing these kinds of tools:

  • Before beginning an exercise of this type, ask the client’s permission to do an exercise together. Highlight how much you can empathize with their frustration and that it all is certainly valid. You can then describe how you hope that they will be able to leave today’s session feeling a greater sense of peace and that some of the frustration has been released. You might then wonder if they would be willing to join you practicing a tool for that. Getting consent for changing direction is important in sessions, it helps the client to feel safe and gives you the chance to make sure that what you are trying is something that they want to do.
  • I find it so important when presenting new tools or strategies that I also point out that I am not expecting these to be solutions to the issue. I don’t want my clients to feel silenced by the introduction of a new strategy. Rather, I will point out that these can be one way to work on lowering the stress that we feel about something and that often they become effective when we practice them a few times. This can help make something new more accessible to people.
  • Begin by practicing a few deep breaths together. Explain how to breathe deeply into the chest and abdomen, to focus on expanding. If possible, the exhale should be a beat longer than the inhale as this helps us to further calm by activating the parasympathetic nervous system.
  • For a straightforward focusing exercise you can invite the client to scan through their body and notice where the frustration lies. Together you can explore the qualities of the feeling, if it could appear to have a shape, or a color, or a texture. The experience of imagining these qualities can help to provide distance from the immediacy of the reaction to the emotion. It can also help with gaining broader perspective on the changing or passing nature of emotions.
  • Upon locating the emotion in the body, you could also have the client visualize twisting or turning the feeling in a clockwise direction. Do this for a few moments and then have them envision twisting the feeling in the other direction. Most people find it really challenging to do this, which paradoxically can help the feeling to release.

These are just a few suggestions to try as down-regulation strategies for clients, but there are certainly many more out there, and I would encouraging using your creativity in developing imagery to use. I find it can be really useful to practice the exercises on ourselves first, see what works and what doesn’t.

We also can use this time of acutely experiencing our own frustrations to further learn about and inform overall our knowledge of frustration in the human experience. For the reality is, this is a continuing part of our experience. We cannot cure frustration; it will come back from time to time. (Or sometimes even more often than that!) As human beings we have a fallible level of patience, which can vary depending on how our circumstances, how we are feeling physically, and our previous experiences. Instead, the goal is to work on helping to reduce the degree to which it distresses us and the frequency with which it may impact us.

Practicing first on ourselves also serves the double function of being pro-active about our self-care. By extending ourselves compassion and soothing towards our frustrations, we recharge ourselves, being able to go forward better equipped to help others.
Christine Forte is a counselor working in private practice online with the globally mobile community. She has recently repatriated to the US with her family after ten years of living and working in Shanghai, China. You can contact her at Christine(at) or read more about her practice at


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