Saturday, March 7, 2015

New Publication: There Is No Need to Talk about This: Poetic Inquiry from the Art Therapy Studio

In the book, There Is No Need to Talk about This readers are given a glimpse into my therapy practice. The poems embrace the painful aspects of my clients' lives, the breakthroughs and struggles my clients experience. The text explores mental illness, trauma, abuse, autism, and depression  and how art and play therapy can help clients move into wholeness. My hope is that this book will resonate with anyone who works with children and youth and that it may inform practice as well. 
The book is published by Sense Publishers and may be ordered online at: Sense Publishers.

Thursday, February 26, 2015

Grand Theft Brain Development and Art Therapy

It has long been known that whatever we focus on, repeat day after day and habitually do creates more of the same thoughts, beliefs and patterns in the brain. The brain wraps itself around whatever our strongest focus is. Norman Doidge in How the Brain Heals Itself, writes about competitive plasticity and the brains ability to rewire itself.
The good news in this is that we can change our brain by exposing it to what we need or want it to believe or perceive in the process healing. It also confirms that doing activities like showing up to meditate and doing the practice, even when it seems hopeless and unfruitful, still helps rewire the brain and deepen and strengthen the networks in the brain that will allow better and more focused meditation in the future. So practice does pay off.
I work with children who habitually wrap their brain around video games such as “Call of Duty” and “Grand Theft Auto.” That is the realty that is being reinforced and absorbed by their brains. These types of games normalize the violence and abuse that some of these children have lived through and help program the children to display behaviours that support violence.
I have also witnessed children who have come from abusive homes and foster homes who have been moved to nurturing and safe foster homes whom have changed so dramatically that I can hardly believe it. Their brains rewire to the new environment and as a result the child looks cared for, act like they matter, develop empathy, and start to like themselves.
 I also feel that in coming to Art Therapy and being exposed to the arts, they get another healthy piece of reality in learning that they are creative and they can create. I do therapy with my clients, but if I only did art, that alone would expand and heal the children whom I work with brain networks. It opens out a whole new world to explore for some of my clients who have never picked up a paint brush, touched clay or made a toy from scratch.
Brain research is fascinating and confirms for me that I picked the right profession.

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. 


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