Howard Widdicombe

Humanistic Psychotherapist and Counsellor in Woking, Surrey

Welcome to my Website


I'm Howard and a warm welcome to my profile page.

My qualifications and experience

I have over 30 years' experience as a Behavioural Psychologist, Psychotherapist and Counsellor registered with the British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy. I am the Principal of the Rowan Counselling Practice, offering short and longer term support through face to face appointments and on line consultations using visual platforms (e.g. Skype, Microsoft Teams, Zoom and WhatsApp).

How we create our internal experiences and external perspectives of our situation and circumstances

Making the most of ourselves and our lives by doing the best we can is a very basic motivational instinct we all recognize within ourselves. We all have the potential to take charge of and influence our own lives - we have the capacity and capability to constantly adapt, learn and grow from new experiences.

The critical role and function of our Autonomic Nervous System (ANS)

We all live an embodied life. Our Autonomic Nervous System is the fundamental, natural, universal process that animates us all. It is the neurobiological basis that forms our awareness and shapes how we learn, create, and adapt our responses to our internal experiences (emotions, sensations, and thoughts) and influences our perspective - our perception and judgements - about our external situation and circumstances (the events, people, places) we continually encounter throughout our lives. In summary "how" we function as human beings.

Most of the time we seem to do "just fine". Our ANS enables us to retain a sense of equilibrium and functional balance - we experience ourselves as "ok", safe, and secure, with the capability to react appropriately to our inner experiences and our external perspective we encounter on an ongoing basis throughout our lives. We have a built in intrinsic experience of safety, acceptance and belonging. We feel centred, calm, connected, and have an innate capacity to be in effective contact with ourselves, other people, and the environment around us in which we exist. This is the bedrock, or foundational experience which enables us to more easily grow, thrive and function effectively in our lives.

However, occasionally we notice ourselves as "out of sorts" for a wide variety of reasons. When this occurs, we often feel anxious, uncertain, stressed, and disoriented. We can experience ourselves as internally overwhelmed by our emotions, sensations, thoughts and, quite often, uncomfortable physical symptoms too. We can also find ourselves struggling to respond appropriately to the many and varied external situations and circumstances (the events, people, places etc), we encounter in our life. These experiences are usually not caused specifically by the incident itself but because there has been a significant adaptive reaction in the effective functioning of our Autonomic Nervous System. The compression and expansion that occurs within our cellular embodied structure results in the creation of survival responses in the neural pathways of our Autonomic Nervous System that frequently result in unmanaged excitation and muscular tension. We experience a disruption and overwhelm to our body and minds natural capacity to appropriately adapt, thrive, and flourish in response to what has happened.

These natural, instinctive, embodied, adaptive, protective reactions have been "triggered" in our ANS. They interfere with our ability to feel "real" and secure in our body and mind, disrupting our very sense of existence, taking us away from living and experiencing ourselves in the present moment, challenging our ability to form and maintain ideal satisfying relationships within ourselves, with other's and the external environment around us.

They inform the way we interpret incoming information through our five senses and how we come to understand ourselves, the world round us, and the relationships we have with other people. We lose our sense of safety, security, being cared about, belonging, and consistently connected to ourselves and others. This dysregulation becomes wired into our Autonomic Nervous System in the form of changes to our responses and reactions to our internal experiences, external environment and particularly our relationships. In addition, these unconscious adaptive strategies can often "kick in" and become deeply embedded in our ongoing adult lives, manifesting as patterns in our physiology (sensations), thoughts, emotions, behaviour and interactions with other people and our environment. In many cases, these early disorientating life experiences continue to "act out" in our current daily lives, constantly recurring and replaying in our relationships, family life, jobs, social life, response to stress, and even the way we instinctively treat ourselves and other people.

When we experience our internal and external world in this way, it is often an accurate indication that our Autonomic Nervous System has lost its connection to a Parasympathetic Ventral Vagal state (a felt experience of safety and security) of Functional Balance and Equilibrium and reacted by migrating away to either: -

  1. An unregulated Sympathetic Nervous System "fight","flight" or "freeze" action oriented, agitated or withdrawal response
  2. a Parasympathetic Dorsal Vagal state where we notice ourselves feeling faint/disoriented and/or "ambivalent", which can eventually result in an instinctive fawning appeasement response.

If this happens, we can experience: -

Some of the key behavioural outcomes that often result include finding ourselves: -

How do I know which "state" my Autonomic Nervous System is in?

As a frame of reference for you, I have summarised below some of the most significant experiences we have of ourselves and our lives if our Autonomic Nervous System is in each of the three states I have described above: -

You might like to consider for a moment which of these three states you experience as being most familiar to you in the different aspects your life (e.g., work, home, family, social etc.).

In more depth/detail: The neurobiological basis that underpins our existence, sense of self, learning and behaviour

If we notice we are "out of sorts" within ourselves and/or with our life in general, our natural instinctive reaction is to seek knowledge, information, and insight as a way of resolving our dilemmas. However, trying to understand the "W" questions (what? when? where? which? who? why? etc) to work out how to rectify the situation is frequently not sufficient to bring about the changes we seek in our internal personal experiences of ourselves and our external perspective and behavioural responses to difficult situations and circumstances we encounter during our lives. The harder we try the more difficult it often seems to become! If we could have thought our way out of the impact of adversity, pressure, anxiety, stress, panic and occasionally, traumatic experience, we would have done so a long time ago!

Whilst it is important and necessary that we consider, and include, social, developmental, and cultural factors when reflecting on our "out of sorts" experiences of ourselves and the world around us, more significantly, at a personal level, this disruption to our sense of self and our environment is triggered by the natural neurobiological processes that govern the functioning of our Autonomic Nervous System.

Fortunately, over the past 30 years or so, rigorous scientific and medical research together with advances in technology have been making extraordinary discoveries about these fundamental natural processes that underpin the creation of our feelings, sensations and thoughts - the neurobiological basis that forms our awareness and shapes our responses to our own internal experiences and influences our perception and judgments about our external situation and circumstances - in summary "how" we function as human beings.

In response to this pioneering research and emerging understanding of the neurobiological basis of learning and behaviour, new innovative and highly creative approaches have emerged which are providing us with a theoretical framework and practical methodology to explain and work with this perspective. Significant among them are: -

  1. Polyvagal theory

    Pioneered by Stephen Purges, this perspective offers a revolutionary roadmap to lead us out of our adaptive survival responses into the autonomically regulated state of safety and security that is necessary for us to experience our own internal wellbeing and sense of personal satisfaction together with an enhanced capacity to respond appropriately to the situations and circumstances we continually encounter throughout our lives. Resolving our difficult and uncomfortable experiences is not about thinking. Our recovery depends, instead, on the work undertaken at the level of the Autonomic Nervous System, which shapes our experiences of safety and security and influences our behaviours, beliefs and capacity for connection with other human beings. From a neurobiological perspective it is the Autonomic Nervous System (ANS) that is the common denominator of our experience - it is at the heart of our lived experience, not our thinking and thought patterns. The ANS is the universal process that "animates" us all and gives us a sense of ourselves internally (our feelings, sensations, thoughts) and creates our perspective of our external world (the events, people, places) that we encounter as we live our lives. To create and sustain our experience of wellbeing and personal satisfaction, we need to find our way back to an internal sense of safety and security and an external capacity to respond appropriately to the multitude of situations and circumstances we encounter in our journey through life.

    To achieve this outcome, we must become aware of and confident in our ability to safely tune into and reshape the state of our Autonomic Nervous System and re-programme the "out of sorts" experiences that are carried in its autonomic pathways. We need to learn the organising principles and practical applications that enable us to move out of despair and isolation and return to an experience of awareness, connection, and social engagement.

    Stephen Porges' perspective and methodology confirms that a metaphor of safety is manifest throughout the body, and not merely in the social engagement system via the muscles of the face and head, or in the ventral vagal pathways. In all aspects of human anatomy, safety is expressed by the down regulation and constraint of defence. When a sense of safety and security occurs within us, the physiological bodily structures can retune themselves to support health, growth, and restoration. Functionally this approach is based on the implicit understanding that when the nervous system is manifest in a state of safety there is a welcoming to touch/contact within us and with others that can be used to align bodily structures and optimise autonomic function.

    Our wellbeing is dependent on a functional and adaptive nervous system. At the heart of our adaptability, especially to stress, is the Vagus nerve. This cranial nerve is integrated into our entire physical and neurological matrix. It is central to every aspect of our life. It can provide us with a sense of deep relaxation and contentment (personal satisfaction) in ourselves and with our external situation and circumstances as well as offer an immediate response to stressful, and occasionally life threatening, situations. It can be both the cause and the resolution of countless, physical, and mental disorders. Its primary essential function is to provide us with our internal sense of self (feelings, sensations, thoughts) and an essential deep personal connection to others and our external environment (events, people, places etc).

    Our bodies, including the neural regulation of skeletal muscle, function differently when in a state of safety. In this state, ventral pathways coordinate the Autonomic Nervous System. Vagal pathways play a crucial and central part in the healing process by calming the body and enabling it to welcome contact. In this state the defensive features of the Autonomic Nervous System are constrained, and the body is welcoming, not only to the social engagement behaviours of prosodic vocalisations and facial expressions, but to touch.

    By intuitively understanding this integrated process, a system of somatic experience interventions has been developed that promotes states of safety, allowing the body to retune the nervous system, thus optimising behaviour, mental health, and physiological homeostasis (functional balance). This process enables internal self-contact (with our feelings, sensations, and thoughts) and a capacity to co-regulate (respond appropriately) to the external situations and circumstances (events, people, places etc) that we encounter on a continuous basis throughout our lives.

  2. Formative Psychology

    Pioneered by Stanley Keleman, his approach enables us to experience the function and purpose of our stress patterns. It can bring enormous relief to recognise that a stress pattern has a function and is not just "bad". These response patterns are a set of defensive bodily reactions designed to protect us. Acknowledging our personal way of reacting to internal stress and external stressful situations helps us to adjust and recalibrate our behaviour in a non-judgmental manner to be able to respond differently and more appropriately to similar situations in the future. "Taking responsibility for ourselves is the great freedom" (ref: Stanley Keleman).

  3. Somatic Experiencing (SE)

    Pioneered by Peter Levine, SE is a naturalistic and neurobiological approach to the treatment of trauma and other stress related disorders. SE offers a framework to assess the current "state" of your Autonomic Nervous System, where it has migrated to and is operating from (potentially "stuck" in a "fight", "flight", "appease" or "freeze" response) and provides clinical tools to resolve those fixated physiological and psychological states and restore your Autonomic Nervous System to a Ventral Vagal state of equilibrium and functional balance.

    The SE approach gently facilitates the release of thwarted survival energy held in the body, thus addressing the root cause of our trauma symptoms, allowing us to better manage stressful times without experiencing overwhelm, depletion and exhaustion in our personal feelings, sensations and thoughts, chronic physical pain, or regretful transgressions. It enables us to "lean into" difficult emotions, physical sensations and thoughts in a way that can increase our own internal resilience and capacity to cope with whatever situations and circumstances we encounter throughout our ongoing daily lives.

    Crucially, our internal perceptions/perspectives (feelings, sensations, and thoughts) and our reactions and responses to the external situations and circumstances we encounter throughout our lives remain fundamentally unchanged until the internal experience in our body changes.

In summary: My approach / How I work

The focus of my work is to enable us to connect and co-regulate the interactions between our social engagement systems, enabling them to convey cues of safety and concern that trigger the beneficial attributes of the Ventral Vagal circuit of our Autonomic Nervous System to promote a state of safety throughout our entire body - thus empowering our body/mind to heal using its own mechanisms. Vagal pathways play an integral and critical role in the healing process, enabling us to welcome self-contact and co-regulation with the external environment. When states of safety are manifest in the structures of our body they are poised to serve as a platform for healing.

I work to support us to become aware of how we all unconsciously and habitually create the internal experiences we have of ourselves and the external perspective we have of the situations and circumstances we experience in our lives. If they work for you then, "if it ain't broke don't fix it", but if we notice we are "out of sorts" with ourselves and our lives, learning "how" to become aware of and then, if appropriate, influence, regulate and differentiate our experiences is key to recovering our sense of safety, security, and personal wellbeing.

I use a variety of interactive, practical, somatic, experiential exercises to enable us to become aware of and learn:-

  1. HOW we have developed the unconscious habituated patterns of sensation, thinking, feeling and behavioural responses that are not working for us and have contributed to our current level of dissatisfaction

  2. HOW to influence, regulate and differentiate these outdated neuro-biological response patterns and support our Autonomic Nervous System to regain and retain ("anchor") itself in a Parasympathetic Ventral Vagal state of equilibrium and functional balance. This enables us to create, improve and experience a more satisfying and fulfilling internal sense of well-being and personal satisfaction, and an enhanced capacity to respond as appropriately as we can to the various situations and circumstances we encounter throughout our lives.

Would you like to know more?

If you would like more detailed information about my background, education, training, experience, and the way I work, please click on the Tabs listed on the left-hand side of this Home Page (About Me, My Practice, The Way I Work and My Approach).

Getting in touch / making an appointment

If you would like to discuss your situation and circumstances in more depth please get in touch and make an appointment, via my: -

I look forward to hearing from you.

With best wishes and kind regards.

Howard Widdicombe


With grateful acknowledgements and appreciations to the following individuals who have helped shape my understanding of the theory and practice of Formative Psychology and Somatic Experience: