Saturday, January 17, 2015

Some Surprises are not Good

A child's drawing of how she feels when she is surprised. 
I do Art and Play Therapy with children who have moved many, many times to new foster homes. With each move there are new setbacks, new fears, new traumas, and new issues for child to struggle with. Sometimes the move to a new environment happens as a complete surprise to the child and sometimes what a Social Worker describes as going for drive ends up being arriving at a new home for a very startled and shocked child.
So, it is any wonder that small and large surprises, moves or changes would trigger traumatic memories or fears?
Even those of us who have not moved seven or eight times in our lifetime, find moving traumatic or at least tough. Having your own space, room, or home helps create the environment within a sense of grounding and belonging can take root and grow. Always moving, means that space has to be nurtured inside oneself. It is hard to trust others or the world if it cannot also be grown outside oneself. And it cannot be grown at all if the body is constant flight-or-fight response.
When any unexpected event happens, we all experience levels varying levels of fear, surprise, or shock. The children I work with have had their fight-or-flight response activated so many times that it becomes a habitual state to live in one or the other. A startle response which is a brief mental and physiological state of surprise or not knowing in response to a small surprise or change, moves quickly into high end flight reaction (dissociation) or fight (aggression). Moving to a new classroom, new bedroom, having a new eating place at the dinner table, etc. all trigger the trauma response without the child knowing why. But it is our responsibility as adults to know why and to create the safety and containment that child in our care needs.
When the rules of reality dictating everyday life are always changing, as where you live, who you call Mom, and what the day to day rules are, how can a child achieve self-regulation?  
So if a foster child is in your classroom, home, or therapy room understand why surprises are not always good for this child. Routine is important, change is frightening and needs to be clearly explained. Being consistent with your child makes them feel safe and wanted. Watch your child for signs of activation; raised eyebrows, wrinkles in forehead, dilated pupils, dropped jaw, darting eyes, shallow breathing, tightening in the upper body, or a darting or running response. These involuntary bodily responses often displayed for a fraction of a second may be followed by confusion, fear, or anger.
Explain to them what is happening and why. Offer them ways to de-escalate as, to do some deep breathing, drink a glass of water, do some movement or release the energy in a way that works for the child. Later doing art expressing feelings would be a good idea. When children regain control and body awareness, then they are not triggered by small changes that remind them unconsciously or consciously if the big life changes that they have experienced. The fear, anger and frustration that the child now feels transforms into grounded awareness and self-regulation. The flight or fight response decreases and the child can move safety and confidently through the world.

Sunday, November 30, 2014

Is All Art Therapeutic?

Is all art therapeutic?

This is another question that people continually ask me. If creating art is not an activity that slows down your mind, causes you joy, allows you to lose track of time, or makes you feel settled and grounded, then no it’s not therapeutic for you. Art making is only therapeutic if it brings you into a more aware awakened state, calming down your nervous system and making you feel positive emotions. Any activity that activates positive neurons and allows you to relax is therapeutic. That could be fishing, cooking, gardening, writing, or making art.
I have worked with clients who feel stress when they try to do art. It is not a fun, relaxing, centering activity for them at all. So, it is not therapeutic at all.
But, for some people using their hands has a calming effect. Women and men throughout time have knitted, sewed, painted, practiced pottery and have found that it benefited their overall health and well being.
Kelly Lambert, author of Lifting Depression writes that:
“… when you knit a sweater or plant a garden, when you prepare a meal or simply repair a lamp, you are bathing your brain in feel-good chemicals and creating a kind of mental vitamin.”
Creating helps you feel productive and achieve mastery. By focusing your cognitive and emotional energies on accomplishing making something by hand it becomes a wonderful use for our neural networks as research has repeatedly proven.
Learning new crafts and art processes results in improvements in cognitive functioning and enhances brain plasticity. Because the brain is designed to actively respond to novelty and external enriched environments, it is forced to grow new cells and those cells are forced to make new connections. In making art, we use all our sensory organs.

This month in the studio we have been playing with knitting.

French Knitting.

Circle looms provide easy way for children to create toques.

 Knitting with thick bamboo needles. 

Thursday, October 16, 2014

FAQ About Art Therapy

How do you stay healthy when you are dealing with trauma and heart breaking stories all day?

I am asked this question frequently. The short answer: I am doing what I am passionate about and what I think matters. However, the long answer is that I work at it. Ken Wilber wrote a book called Integral Life Practice: A 21st-Century Blueprint for Physical Health, Emotional Balance, Mental Clarity, and Spiritual Awakening that suggested the need for having a spiritual, emotional, physical and cognitive practice to maintain balance and growth. I have been doing that for years. I am a regular runner, which helps with releasing stress, frustration and keeps me physically and mentally fit. I meditate which is important to help me grow spiritually and keeps me from over identifying with my small self. I am constantly taking courses and reading which keeps me mentally sharp and I practice Focusing weekly to help me stay healthy emotionally. When I am overwhelmed by the system, the world, or my clients I have a partner who is willing to listen to me and I have a wonderful two year old Granddaughter to play with when I want to feel better about humanity.
I have to be diligent to not hold on to the sadness and pain that is involved in my work. I struggle with feeling that things are not getting better in the world for women and children so I watch what I listen to outside of work hours.  I can’t listen to the news, watch discouraging movies and/or go out with people to complain about the state of the world. This is not putting my head in the sand, I just need to be careful to balance what I see, hear and read so that I don’t become discouraged.
What do you do to keep healthy?

One of the art activities that we have been doing in the studio lately is mask making. Children learn about identity and self expression when they engage in making a mask. They express feelings through their art, develop critical-thinking skills, and learn that there is more then one right answer or way of creating something. Art making builds confidence and helps children feel happy. 

Friday, September 26, 2014

FAQ About Art Therapy

I am starting a new series of blogs answering questions that I get asked about Art Therapy and counseling. The first in the series is about education. I hope you enjoy the series.

Hello. I am wondering if it is enough to have an Art Therapy diploma or degree or do I need to add more to be a good Art Therapist?

I believe that in this area of work, one should always be exploring new ways of practicing. This could mean going back to university for more degrees, taking weekend workshops, or doing online courses.

There are two important areas to be updating oneself in. One is in the world of counseling where there are always new methods and ways of working and the other is in the world of expressive arts. I often take online and weekend art workshops to keep myself updated and inspired. Some clients enjoy dance, puppetry, drama, music and other visual art. It is impossible to be good at all the arts, but it is important to keep exposing and challenging oneself to learn.

In order to keep learning and improve my therapy practice I have taken Somatic Experiencing which provides an excellent education for working with and understanding trauma, EMDR and Brain Spotting which have proven to be invaluable tools to use with clients for trauma resolution and reframing. I studied with and continue to study with Russell Delman. I completed his three year mentorship program “The Embodied Life” which focused on Zen meditation, Feldenkrais Method, and Focusing. I am a Focusing teacher and worked with Ann Cornell to learn Focusing. All these courses and ways of working have augmented and enriched my Art Therapy practice. I also returned to university a few years back to get a Masters. I think it is important to be a lifelong learner and read as much as possible.

As an Art Therapist, I find that I am constantly drawing on tools, information, techniques and ideas from a variety of different kinds of therapies and disciplines. Each client I see has a different set of needs and I find it helpful to have lots of ideas and ways of working at my disposal.

Having said this, I am first and foremost an Art Therapist. Most of what I learn, I adapt into the framework of Art Therapy. It is fun and creative to draw on many sources and beliefs to keep my practice alive and vital.

One of the art activities that we have been doing in the studio lately is string art. Children learn how to problem solve, think creatively, observe, and analyze when they are engaged in creating art. They express feelings through their art, develop critical-thinking skills, and learn that there is more then one right answer or way of creating something. Art making builds confidence and helps children feel happy.

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Mermaids and Art Therapy

Being an Art Therapist means that I need to have many art ideas. On average I see seven clients a day and each client wants and needs something different. Some clients engage with a lot of art making, others none. Consequently, I am always searching and researching art ideas that can be used therapeutically.

A couple of weeks ago I stumbled upon Jane Davenport and Teesha Moore’s online workshop called Mermaid Circus. Find out more about it by going here They are both amazing teachers and artists. I wasn’t sure if I could turn what I was learning into therapy, but I did and with great results. The main concept of the class was to create handmade journals from drawings and collage images to explore the circus and mermaid themes.

I created my own journal in the shape of a mermaid and left it in the studio where several teenagers saw it and then wanted to create their own. I explained that I was making eight different mermaids that expressed different parts or qualities of myself. I illustrated my reflective side, joyful side; I named three mermaids to show my curiosity, desire, to pause, and forward movement. I created one to represent chaos, another for openness.

I was thrilled that several people wanted to do the same project to represent different parts of themselves. Other clients chose to create a single mermaid to which we added a self-portrait and then decorated. The project has been fun, illuminating and insightful for the clients and myself.

 I love using the mermaid form for symbolic reasons. For me it speaks of going into the depths of our unconscious, swimming in silence, and moving through currents. As women many of us have experienced losing our voice, being silenced, disconnecting, dissociating, and being misunderstood. Mermaids symbolize the different ways women have bound by society, lost their ability to move and be seen. Mermaids are mystical beings that are desired and feared. The mermaid started out as a fishtailed Aphrodite and was called “Virgin of the Sea” carrying all the symbolism attributed to Aphrodite.


While working on my images I was reminded of Clarissa Pinkola Estés story, “Sealskin” in Women Who Run With the Wolves. Estés writes that in Jungian psychology, “the ego is often described as a small island of consciousness that floats in a sea of unconsciousness.” The story talks about how women lose and then reclaim their own voice, own values, imagination, clairvoyance, stories and memories. It talks about how we can practice intentional solitude opposed to being dissociated or lost in fogginess.

Working with these mermaids has been a joy for my clients and myself. I am always thrilled when I discover such a rich, deep image to explore as therapeutic art. Thank you Jane and Teesha for the inspirational class.  


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