I am a Greek student, living in Athens, where I have just finished my first degree in early years education at Akmi Metropolitan College. During my studies I had two courses of counselling, each lasting a couple of months, to help me overcome my phobia and anxiety.

I was very anxious and stressed when I started counselling, and as a result both my quality of life and my academic performance were deteriorating. Part of my problem was that I had a phobia of pigeons. In Athens there are pigeons almost everywhere and my phobia meant that I was avoiding going to certain places and most of the time needed someone with me in case a pigeon made its appearance. I couldn’t go out with friends to places where they might appear, and I was having mild panic attacks.

In Greece counselling is not very popular and people are hesitant about trying it. I think that generally they consider it a taboo. Many students still believe that you must be ill, crazy or deficient to seek counselling help, and they are afraid of being seen as such by others. Even though confidentiality is guaranteed, students still do not seek help.

My counsellor was very friendly, genuine and open to me and I developed a very good relationship with her. She always listened very carefully to my problems and concerns. She taught me a lot of useful techniques that have helped me to manage and reduce my stress, such as controlling my breath and relaxation. I also learned how to make anxiety productive and to distinguish between negative and positive stress. Importantly, I learned that avoiding my phobias is a way to ‘feed’ them and that it helps them grow.

We talked about ways of facing my phobia and my counsellor set me tasks, such as going to a place where there are pigeons and staying for several minutes, and gradually increasing the time. We also talked about the mechanism of stress and the biological, psychological and social factors that are involved. We did guided imagery and progressive muscle relaxation and my counsellor demonstrated very useful exercises that I could practise at home. I have found these very helpful. After the counselling sessions, mostly I felt happier and more relaxed, even if we had talked about things that I found difficult.

The final session was dedicated to looking back on the course of counselling. We talked about my experience of the whole counselling process, the reasons I had come to counselling, the areas I wanted to develop, and how stress was preventing me from being in touch with my potential and believing in myself. We also talked about the changes that were occurring in me and in my life and what I had done to achieve these changes.

My counsellor suggested I make a representation of the course in any way that I liked – for example, a painting, or making a personal map and marking the stages that were particularly important and life-changing for me. I was moved and very proud that I had had the courage to try counselling, something new for me, and deal with my fears. I also had mixed feelings of both sadness and joy since, as my counselling was coming to an end, so too was a stage of my academic life. Many chapters in my life were closing, and I had still not opened the new ones.

Counselling has helped me a lot; it is not an exaggeration to say that I have seen dramatic changes in my life. I am aware that I manage my stress issues more effectively, and the same holds for my phobia: I can now be in a place where there are pigeons. I also feel more confident in unfamiliar situations and I have learned that asking for help and using available resources is very important. Being able to deal with life’s challenges without feeling anxious has helped me in many areas of my life, such as in my academic progress. I learned a very important thing, which is that the best way to face your phobias is not to avoid them.

As for my future, I haven’t thought in depth about it yet. I have just successfully completed my BSc and I intend to continue my studies on a postgraduate MSc business programme. I am now more confident and believe that I have the academic and personal skills necessary to have a satisfying academic and personal life.

Looking back, I feel that counselling has taught me important life lessons, and I have suggested the counselling service to some of my fellow students as I think that having a friend who has had counselling and has found it helpful can motivate others to give it a try.