Doctoring the love sick with fluffy socks

Berlin, Jan 1- Getting over a broken heart begins with a pair of wool socks at Elisabeth Stoffel-Laeufer's practice.

Stoffel-Laeufer counsels people who have suffered a break-up in an old building in Freiburg, south-western Germany which has long windows that let in plenty of daylight. The first thing her broken-hearted patients must do is take off their shoes and put on fluffy warm socks. By their last session, most have talked their frustrations out and have new hope for the future.

That is how Stoffel-Laeufer presents her psychological counselling services, saying nearly everyone has to go through the experience of a broken heart at some point in their life.

"Some people survive this phase without much hurt, while others need help," according to the counsellor. She runs her practice in an upscale Freiburg neighbourhood. "People who come to me first want to talk," she said. More than anything, she gives them her ear as an active listener.

"Disappointment in seeking love or a sudden break-up of a relationship can send a person crashing into a deep crisis. Many feel incapable of action, no longer take interest in anything and isolate themselves," said Stoffel-Laeufer in describing the symptoms she sees in her patients. They refuse invitations, their jobs become aggravating and they are threatened with social isolation.

"The danger of heartsick people becoming depressed is great," said Stoffel-Laeufer who discovered a market niche in lovesickness and developed it into a business idea.

"In this area there is obviously a need," said Werner Weishaupt, president of Germany's association of psychotherapists, alternative medicine practitioners and psychological counsellors. The person who is left in many cases feels alone with his or her worries and needs the help of experts.

"The social support in society has declined," said Weishaupt, adding that advice doled out by the family is often unsolicited and can be seen as partial. This is why people who have gone through a break-up seek professional counselling.

Stoffel-Laeufer got into the field in a roundabout way. She studied philosophy, the German language, literature and geography, then taught German to foreigners. She then returned to school, pursuing an education in psychological counselling. That led to a job in a religious organisation.

She opened her practice for the lovesick a little over six months ago. Since then she has had 11 clients, mostly women between the ages of 30 and 50, who pay 60 euros ($86) an hour for a place on her couch.

"Of course, men are not immune from lovesickness," she said. "They are just less inclined to talk about it."

Her consultations are without pressure. There's no fingers raised in accusation. It's much more about opening an ear and when appropriate offering restrained advice.

"Lovesickness is often just the first trickle from an entire bucket of problems that spill out," said Thordis Bethlehem, vice president of Germany's professional association for psychologists. It is not, however, a true sickness and therefore cannot be treated by therapeutic methods. In severe cases regular and open conversations can help.

Usually the pain disappears on its own, said Bethlehem. Above all it's important not to close oneself off and to talk about the problems with friends. (dpa)