We are whole beings. We are made up of not just body and mind, but feelings, and core Self (or soul, from a spiritual perspective). We are all of these things and they are not separate. Our feelings affect our physical functioning and our immune systems, which affect our thoughts, which affect our feelings and everything in between. The mind-body connection is real and my approach to therapy reflects this truth.
At Focal Point Art Therapy + Counseling, I work with these different aspects of your life and who you are by engaging you in speaking different languages. When I say languages, however, I don’t mean Spanish or Swahili; I mean some of the many languages we can use as human beings to investigate and communicate our inner experience. Some of those spoken in my practice include art, mindfulness meditation, and Sandplay.
One therapeutic language I often teach to clients to use to communicate with their inner selves is the language of Acceptance and Commitment Therapy.
Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT)
Acceptance and Commitment Therapy is a mindfulness-based approach to shifting our relationship with our thoughts and feelings and living according to our values. For most of us, our thoughts and feelings run our lives and determine the way we behave in any given situation. If we feel angry we may yell, curse, drive aggressively. . . lash out in some way. If we are sad or anxious, we may avoid others, give in to low energy or fear and reduce our activity, and/or distract ourselves from our feelings with any number of bad habits like drinking too much or disappearing into our phones at every opportunity. . . or we may simply suppress our feelings and ignore them, believing that positivity and productivity are our best solutions. Unfortunately, suppression and avoidance rarely work in the long-term; in fact, these methods often sap our energy for discovering and doing what matters in our lives and they intensify the very thoughts and feelings we are trying to avoid over time.
ACT provides us with techniques to first ground ourselves in the present moment so we can observe what it is we are thinking and feeling, rather than reflexively acting on them. Then, through the ACT skills of “Defusion” and “Expansion,” we learn to step back from our thoughts, however persuasive, and hold our feelings like compassionate observers inside us, so that our self-defeating thoughts and uncomfortable feelings do not control our behavior. With increasing confidence in our ability to cope with internal challenges, we can consider and act on our values with increasing frequency. Though it is not the goal of ACT to reduce distress, per se, as you learn to live with pain with less angst and watch your mind trying to convince you to believe your self-defeating thoughts as gospel, your suffering will likely decrease and your well-being increase.
Our thoughts are not the problem. Our thoughts do not create the psychological smog. It is the way we respond to our thoughts that creates the smog.
-Russ Harris, The Reality Slap
"If we aren’t supposed to act on our feelings and thoughts, what do we act on?” you may ask. We may choose to act on thoughts and feelings when they A) serve us in the moment and don’t detract from our long-term goals and B) are in line with our core values. But the key is choice. To make sure our thoughts and feelings ARE in line with our values and give ourselves the opportunity to truly choose values-driven action, we first identify our values--our ideas about what is important in our lives and the kind of people we want to be--and then we strive to honor those values in every situation. This is possible. Driving, grocery-shopping, dinner with our families, and arguments with our partners can all be opportunities to behave according to core values. . .but without tools to cope with painful feelings and seductive, fear-based thoughts, we will not be able to consistently focus on those values. That is where ACT comes in.
Creative Arts Therapy
I have always used creative self-expression—writing poetry, journaling, singing, making visual art, even compiling collections of songs, (my beloved “mixtapes”)—to get through challenging experiences and cope with painful feelings, so when I was searching for the right place for me in the mental health field it was only natural that Creative Arts Therapy would capture my attention. I loved the idea of using the arts therapeutically without the need to be “good at art.” I’m not, especially, in a trained artist kind of way, and you don’t need to be either to benefit from using the arts in therapy.
In my therapy sessions with clients of all ages, the needs and interests of the client determine whether I incorporate art into therapy sessions, but if you are open to it, art-making can be a helpful element of your treatment.
When clients make art, they often discover subconscious knowledge of themselves, work through memories too painful to process with words alone, envision change, and relate to themselves in new ways that are not always possible with cognitively-focused, verbal work alone. These qualities of art-making can be especially helpful for children, who quite naturally use art as a language. Making art can also be a way to relax and regulate the nervous system, experience a sense of purpose and control, and, paradoxically, practice coping with real-life situations in which you lack control.
Many of us are over-thinkers, caught up in self-analysis but rarely able to experience ourselves directly in ways that might actually help us to let go of the patterns of thought and behavior that hold us back. When we externalize our feelings and thoughts through art, however, we learn to see ourselves more clearly. Our inner self begins to reveal itself in a gentle way we can digest, without triggering our natural impulse to escape that which we don’t want to see.
Art making is a way of dwelling in whatever is before us that needs our attention. There is a universal tendency to turn away from difficulty. Image making allows for staying with something while making that staying bearable through the pleasure available in using the materials.
— Pat Allen, Ph.D., ATR-BC, Art Therapist, Writer, Educator
Sandplay Therapy is a hands-on, depth-oriented therapeutic modality that can help facilitate the psyche’s natural movements toward healing and growth. Using sand, water, and miniature objects, the client creates a “scene” or “world” in the sand.
You do not need to create a picture that “makes sense” or tell a story about what is happening in the sand; anything that appears there is thought to be a worthwhile expression of something true and even if the meaning is not readily apparent, the process alone is thought to be therapeutic. The process of choosing and placing objects in the sand can illuminate and gently hold elements of our inner symbolic worlds, providing a jumping-off point for verbal or artistic exploration of themes expressed, or acting as its own complete therapeutic experience. At the very least, contact with the sand and intuitively choosing objects can often be a pleasant and relaxing sensory experience that can be a kind of ritual to begin or end a therapy session.
In terms of how I use Sandplay Therapy, some clients use Sandplay in every session—sometimes as an opening or closing activity, sometimes as the bulk of the therapy session--while others use it when it feels right—perhaps when major life transitions are at the forefront or existential questions loom large. Sometimes we go to Sandplay when rational thought or words feels inaccessible. As your personal symbols reveal themselves over time and your inner story unfolds in the “safe and protected space” of the sand tray, a sense of balance, wholeness, and witnessed growth emerges.