The pandemic moved many therapists online. We can still do more than talking therapy. Jill Carter shares creative solutions with arts and sandplay via the internet
In early 2020, I was teaching arts and creative therapies from a rented office in London. The room buzzed with clients and students choosing from my collection of sandplay miniatures and art materials. But the pandemic stopped all that.
Like many of us, I felt nervous about doing creative therapy online. So, my mind took me back to doing talking therapy. My heart sank as I started packing my treasures away and handed back the keys to my office. I kept some symbols and paints by my computer at home. As I began talking therapy again, the figures and colours kept calling to me. I followed my old creative process and began including sandplay and art with my clients.
By releasing my fear (which is the antithesis to expressive arts) I learnt to appreciate playful online therapy. So, here are some tips to help you do the same.
There is no set way to do creative therapy online
The good news is that this is a new way of working. Therefore, you can find creative alternatives counselling that suit your personality and style of working. You can tailor online therapy sessions to suit your client – whether they are children, adolescents or adults. Certainly, many of us are finding it harder to concentrate during this stressful time. In our trauma therapy training, we discuss Dan Siegel’s ‘Window of Tolerance’. Basically, we are spending a lot of energy trying to regulate our system, which leaves less time to focus. So, how about trying shorter sessions? It helps in any case relieve Zoom fatigue for both therapist and client.
You are still an anchor for clients even in an online therapy session
It’s tempting I know just to check in with clients on the telephone. However, there is an increasing amount of research (e.g., by Stephen Porges of Polyvagal Theory) that seeing your face matters. The area around your eyes in particular can convey safety to help regulate a distressed client. As does the sound of your voice – and the way that you breathe. Whilst you are using FaceTime or Zoom, you may be wishing you had brushed your hair first. But remember that for a client that windswept little face of yours can be a soothing memory of normality. We can still regulate each other even through a screen.
Creative therapy online gives you a window into the client’s world
The person you are working with may be in their home, perhaps in their bedroom. This is a great opportunity to see into their inner world. What therapeutic art pictures do they have? Could they show you their favourite toy or book? Children and young people in particular often enjoy showing you around their home. You will also get an idea of the dynamics in the household. For example, how much privacy does the client have? How respectful are other people (partners, parents) of the online therapy session? If an adult chooses to talk to you from their car, what does that tell you? I re-contract with existing clients, inviting them to consider how online art therapy or sandplay can be protected. New clients also need to work out boundaries etc. before the online therapy begins.
What equipment do I need to find creative solutions online?
Less than you think! We can get hung up (especially as art therapists) on having the right paints or sand tray miniatures. To do creativity in therapy, each client obviously needs to have some art materials; however, a few crayons or pencils will do. You can also do sandplay by using a more creative approach. A client could use a bag of shells or stones placed in a tray of long grain rice. I have ten beautiful, handmade sand trays (https://ulrikeoflaherty.wixsite.com/sandtraysfortherapy) sat in a storage unit. Look at online working as a chance to simplify your collection (think Marie Kondo). Ulrike has adapted by making half sized trays to sit on a desk in front of Zoom.
Some clients prefer not to be in the room with you!
I have talked to hundreds of therapists and clients this year. It’s usually therapists who resist working online. Clients tend to be more accepting of online therapy sessions. The rest of their lives have moved online, why should counselling be any different? It’s sometimes easier to regulate eye contact (which can feel exposing) when the counsellor isn’t there with you. For young people in particular, it can be easier to talk via screen (or by text). So, you can get difficult experiences disclosed online quicker than in face-to-face therapy. We may have to work on pacing in online art and creative therapies, so that the client isn’t left feeling vulnerable.
Does online therapy work?
I started working online in order to keep existing therapeutic relationships going. But now I have learnt to appreciate creative online therapy on its own merits. My online creative approach may have been born of necessity, but it has taken on a life of its own. There are opportunities in this. Many clients have been passing time playing video games. By sharing this creative alternative to counselling with us via Zoom, clients give us an insight into their archetypal even apocalyptical inner world. I think online work could create a more equal dynamic between counsellor and client.
The research on how working online will change the counselling industry is still being written. I know that I will still be offering online training courses once the pandemic is over. It’s a different therapeutic space. Once you get past the challenges of the technology, it is still a relational one. But just as I can’t wait to meet people again in coffee shops, I can’t wait to smell the paints and touch the sand in real world trainings. Some senses can’t be simulated online!
Get support and experience working online in a small group on one of Jill’s trainings. The next online Introduction to Sandplay is on March 6th/7th. The next online Introduction to Working Creatively with Trauma is also March 6th/7th. For more details visit www.jillcartertraining.co.uk or email firstname.lastname@example.org