Berkhamsted counselling and hypnotherapy: Techniques for anxiety from Gestalt therapy
Zones of awareness - a useful idea from Gestalt therapy
There’s a useful idea from Gestalt therapy which provides an empowering way of working with anxiety, depression and really any problem in which our minds are a component of the problem itself. It’s called the zones of awareness. Once it becomes an integrated way of understanding your experience it’s a very simple and useful tool for reminding us of what’s real and what’s not and orienting us to the present moment - a key value in Gestalt therapy.
In Gestalt therapy we take the perspective that there are 3 zones of awareness, the outer zone, the inner zone and the middle zone.
They can be thought of as follows:
The outer zone of awareness is everything you’re aware of right now that’s external to you and thats accessible to your awareness through your vision and hearing. So it’s literally what you can see around you and what you can hear in your immediate environment. So for me what I can see right now as I write this is my laptop screen in front of me, the white wall just beyond my laptop, the lamp in the corner of the room, the curtains moving slightly with the breeze and the morning light shining against the curtain. What I can hear is the sound of a bird in the tree outside my flat, a distant aeroplane in the sky and a car passing by on the road outside. All of these are in my outer zone of awareness. I also notice that I can’t really be aware of all of these things simultaneously, my awareness flickers between them one after the other.
The inner zone of awareness comprises those purely sensory feelings and sensations that I’m aware of that are coming from inside me. What’s in the inner zone of awareness can be considered as pure sensory information. For me at this moment what I’m aware of in my inner zone of awareness is the pressure of my laptop against my wrists as I write, I feel the pressure of my bed on my lower back as I lie down and I can feel the weight of my left leg on my right ankle. When you really become aware of what you feel right now, what you feel right now is often so simple it seems mundane, it’s the tightness in your shoulder or the fluttery feeling in your tummy.
The middle zone of awareness can be thought of as everything that’s going on right now in the world of my imagination. So it’s thoughts, plans, anticipations, remembrances, day dreams and the land of my inner fantasising that’s only available to me (unless I start communicating about it). So right now I’m thinking about what I have to do today and what time I have to do it. I’m aware that I have family visiting so I need to plan for that and I’ve just remembered my car is in a car park outside with no ticket on it and I need to put some money in the machine. The psychoanalyst Christopher Bollas said something like ‘we live our lives mostly in private dreaming’ when he said that he was referring to the land of experiencing that happens exclusively in our middle zone.
So if you consider those three zones of awareness, in which zone do you think you spend most of your time? Which zone do you spend least in? We all vary in this, and we don’t usually divide our time equally between all three zones. Someone that’s very worried about their health might spend a lot of time in their inner zone feeling lots of sensations and then in their middle zone fantasising about what disease it is that the feeling might be a symptom of. Others perhaps are so oriented on doing that there is very little awareness of what’s happening inside at the level of feeling or imagining. How often are you in the middle zone in an imaginary future or a remembered past and how often are you in the present when that fantasising falls away?
A useful thing ‘rule’ to remember from Gestalt therapy is that the only zones of awareness that connect us to the reality that’s only ever happening in the present are the outer and inner zones. The middle zone is the land of non reality, the land of fantasy, but it’s very often the activity of that hypnotising and incredibly powerful middle zone that determine the quality of our lives and in particular the kind of suffering we live in. It can be a strange concept to get your head around and it’s usually one that inspires lots of lively discussion and debate, but it’s a rich and useful notion if you can allow yourself to experiment with it.
There are many useful ideas from Gestalt therapy and Cognitive Hypnotherapy that inform my approach to working with people with all sorts of problems, if you’re curious about therapy and what it could do for you, feel free to get in touch.