Traditionally psychotherapy has meant talking therapy. But as interest in trauma has grown, counselling and creativity have integrated. Jill Carter explores expressive arts therapy
Like many therapists who gravitated to expressive arts therapy, I trained in traditional talk therapy first. I enjoyed listening and talking to clients. However, I soon saw the limitations of words. Basically, many of our traumas (especially our mother wounds) happen before we are old enough to string a sentence together. So, at some point usually, when we were getting close to something, the words would run out. I would be trying to have a verbal conversation with a part of the client who was a young, wounded child.
My personal way into the process of creating was sandplay therapy. Indeed, here was a type of therapy that could continue the conversation with even our youngest parts. Sandplay therapy is based on symbols, holding memories and experiences coming from the body and soul. The title of Bessel van der Kolk’s seminal book ‘The Body Keeps the Score’ sums it up succinctly.
Creative expression is a gentle way to help emotions and memories release from bodies that stored them
Expressive arts therapy in the mid to late twentieth century as separate art forms. Visual art, dance music drama therapy, movement art: all of these in fact have been around as a type of therapy for decades. Each of these, such as art therapy, is governed by its own professional bodies and tightly regulated trainings. For decades, dance and movement therapists, music therapists, art therapists and sandplay therapists were working independently according to their own protocols. Some therapists (like me) were trained in a number of different disciplines. So, we followed our instincts to combine creative media at the same time.
So, that’s basically how integrative expressive arts therapy was born. It emerged spontaneously from what Jung called the Collective Unconscious. That is, the heart of creativity and expression. We can all resonate with it, as it is part of our genetic inheritance. On our courses, we will show you how to use movement, rhythm, song and dance as well as art and sandplay to access this joyful place.
What is Expressive Arts Therapy? An integrative art form which is a language without words
The growth of trauma therapy has accelerated interest in bottom-up, somatic therapies via the work of people like Janina Fisher and Stephen Porges. There is a natural integration of parts that happens in creative work that is a rich and exciting aspect of this movement. We are being forced by the pandemic to face the limitations of our minds – how can we possibly plan?
“Often the hands know how to solve a riddle with which the intellect has wrestled in vain” (Carl Jung)
There is a wisdom in the body which has been known for thousands of years in many spiritual traditions. Witnessing a client connecting to that ‘place of knowing’ is very special.
Neuroscience and trauma research is showing us that people respond to creative media in different ways. Evidence-based work by art therapists suggests that putting pen to paper creates neural pathways between the thinking and feeling parts of the brain. This allows a client to talk about their feelings or memories, whilst their creative hands are active. However, that may not work for everyone. Some children and adults need the earthy, tactile nature of sand or clay in order to ground their feelings. Expressive arts therapists use their intuition to guide them to the form of therapy that client needs at that time.
The key to expressive arts therapy is still the therapeutic relationship between counsellor and client. As we get to know the person sitting with us, we can use our own body’s rhythm and breath to co-regulate and get an embodied sense of how the client is really doing. We are therefore in the flow of the process. Also, our intuition will guide us on the creative journey together. The beauty of expressive arts therapy is that all this happens naturally. We don’t have to talk about it. creative work is person-centred, the client can talk when and if s/he wants to.
In these times of grief and loss, expressive arts therapies create a place of safety and healing for people of all ages: it also takes away the pressure to talk
In addition, using a mixture of creative media allows us to pace the therapeutic process. Some pieces of work like sand tray therapy or painting, can bring unconscious material to the surface quickly without talking. To keep the client safely self-regulating, we can switch to gentle movement or humming which minimises dissociation and settles our defences. This gentle pacing is really useful in bereavement work.
Creating your own blend of creative arts therapy can be very empowering for your clients. In a world where our freedoms are so restricted, being able to choose what colour you paint with takes on a whole symbolic meaning of its own. Expressive arts is also excellent in group work as it creates a place where you can just exhale. When I watch groups of frontline workers on the television, my dearest wish is that they find that nourishing space. In fact, when the storm has passed, there are many art therapy groups in the NHS that can do just that.
Expressive arts therapy can be an anchor for you too, whether you are a counsellor. psychotherapist, supervisor or mental health worker. On our courses, we will help you find ways of supporting yourself in what looks like another tough year. Learning to care for yourself via creativity will be crucial. Even something as simple as making sure you ground yourself between clients. Find time for yourself – make time for yourself. Before you say I haven’t got time for that, remember that you deserve it. And that self-care is contagious. Our clients learn how to be creative from us. So, take that time out to do a picture of sand tray for yourself.
The next Expressive Arts Therapy: A Weekend’s Introduction led by Jill Carter is on Saturday and Sunday 20th/21st March via Zoom Meetings. For more details and to book visit https://jillcartertraining.co.uk/expressive-arts-therapy-counselling/ or email firstname.lastname@example.org.