inside art therapy

Putting art therapy ramblings to paper…

Swearing by MythBusters February 8, 2012

Filed under: Art Therapy,Creativity,Glenda Needs,How art can heal — insidearttherapy @ 7:02 pm

MythBusters conducted an interesting test on whether swearing aloud increases tolerance to pain.

Although the sample size was extremely small (n=5), swearing aloud during a painful experience increased the participants’ ability to tolerate this pain by an average of 30%. Pretty impressive.  Although we can certainly question the methodology of this particular study, anecdotal evidence says people will report pain relief upon swearing.

But what is going on here? Whether you say ‘ elbow’, or ‘f**k”, it’s just a word, a collection of sounds with relevance to English speakers only. Is it the extent of expression that matters, in other words, the intensity with which the word is expressed or is it that the more ‘naughty’ or shock value in the word, the more pain one can withstand?  Does this mean that a usually mouthy person gets less relief when he or she swears during a painful incident?

If we know that swearing helps pain, how come we have so much trouble accepting that ART can ease pain?

The action of scuffing the pastel across the page, blocking in slabs of colour, moving the body in arcs and extension, in and out, up and over can add a rhythm and movement.  I had the opportunity for some lovely soothing pastel work today.  I am currently nursing a badly bruised arm (from a trip over the weekend). My arm is sore ( just slight pain in the background) but as I worked today, I noticed the pain in my arm almost in rhythm with the art making.  Part of me was annoyed, but another part of me welcomed the intensifying of the pain on the pull motions, whilst it lessened on the push motions.  As I worked I realized that the art gave purpose to my pain, it was ok to hurt because it was achieving something, and secondly, it was as if I was in control of it. It some ways I was in control. I could bring the pain on and ease it off. It was much better than being a passive experiencer of the pain.  I felt a small sense of mastery over it.  I also felt some reassurance that the pain is almost cyclical, that it is not fixed. I thought about how often I flex a sore muscle, or press a bruise,  drawn to make and then stop the pain by my own actions.  Is this a small opportunity to prove control over it?

I don’t know.

But I would suggest, that among other things, Art has these innate healing properties:

1.  Blood pressure, heart rate and other physiological stress indicators are reduced during art making.

2.  Art can be the ‘swear’ for some people who put this extent or intensity of expression into the art making act rather than the word.

3.  The whole body movement and choice to engage in art making despite pain, can give the artist a sense of control, where pain is usually uncontrolled.


Sneezing at the therapeutic relationship February 7, 2012

Filed under: Art Therapy,Creativity,Glenda Needs,How art can heal — insidearttherapy @ 9:12 pm

I have permission to share the following story with you.  It will be removed if this lovely person changes her mind, which she is perfectly entitled to do.

Before I was an art therapist, I was a counsellor who used art.

I was working with Kate (not her real name) who really wanted to do something about her obsessively rigid, black and white attitude to the world which was causing her considerable issues in relationships.  Kate was determined that everything should be just right, all the time.  She believed that she should justify her decisions and then be immovable.  She believed that weak people made mistakes, or sat on the fence, and that she wouldn’t be liked if she wasn’t always right, and decisive.   After some work in lovely soft chalky pastels, Kate wanted to soften the image off even further.  As part of this act, in which she smudged and blended, Kate grated chalk dust over the image through a seive.

Within less the a minute of this process beginning, I unexpectedly sneezed.  I apologized and started to wipe my hands with a wet wipe, when I sneezed again, and again, and again.  After about 20 sneezes, I excused myself and went outside.  I ran into the adjoining bathroom and grabbed a handful of toilet paper and I blew my nose, over and over to clean out the chalk dust and hopefully stop the sneezing.  I wiped my teary eyes (from the exertion of sneezing- not because I was emotionally overwhelmed!), and returned to the consult room.   I apologized again, and Kate launched back into her process, but less than a minute later I began to sneeze again.  I worked hard to draw attention away from my sneezing over the following 20 minutes.  We continued but went from laughing about it, to wondering if something was wrong.  I went from embarrassment, annoyance, and internal fury, some of which must have shown on my face, to resignation that I’d probably never see Kate again!

Toward the end of the session, once the sneezing had finally stopped, I summarized the session.  I asked Kate what her ‘take home’ message might be and she floored me with her answer.  Kate told me that she realized that even though I was sneezing, which was awful and embarrassing for both of us at times, that she still ‘liked’ me.  She said that she knew I was angry with myself and that we didn’t get through much in the session.  While Kate was watching me struggle with the situation, it occurred to her, that sometimes things just aren’t controllable. She decided that even if things go pear shaped and embarrassing, it is possible to still be liked and even admired for surrendering to an unmanageable situation.  She said that if a counsellor can really mess up a session and still be liked and successful, and even welcome the next client with confidence, (an assumption on her behalf!), then perhaps she could be a little gentler on herself.   Most of all, she liked that I said “Sorry”, but didn’t blabber on about excuses for why it happened, or try to make it up to her.  She said that she didn’t expect me to be perfect, so it was unrealistic and irrational to think she should be. Apparently, even though on her first impressions I looked like a second-rate counsellor, she really liked me!

I learnt something that day too.  The therapeutic relationship can provide some opportunities for healing that we might never imagine.

Unfortunately, I made a little boo boo on the way out, when I offered a free session because this one had been such a disaster!  She refused saying that perhaps she should pay me double seeing as I went to such lengths for her.  I realized by offering a free session, I actually potentially diminished the value she’d gained, by sneezing at the power of the therapeutic relationship.

Thankfully Kate returned for several more sessions and I have not had anything like that sneezing attack since!





Writing in the South of France (well… nearly!) January 26, 2012

Filed under: Art Therapy,Creativity,Glenda Needs,How art can heal — insidearttherapy @ 4:29 pm

I finally get it.  I really do.  For ever I have believed that writers who would slip off to the south of France and sit in a high room overlooking the sea or some beautiful countryside, in order to write, were indeed being a wee bit self indulgent. One can surely write anywhere?  But no, apparently not.  I have spent the last 18 hours in beautiful Victor Harbor, in a hotel room, up high overlooking the sea.  And I am writing, waxing lyrically actually.  It just seems to flow.  Every time I look out on the world I feel omnipotent, all seeing, all wise (!).  Is nature balancing my overstimulated brain? Actually, I’m not sure why this works so well, but clearly it does.  I am powering through the final pages of my book. I feel like writing poetry.

  • Art Therapy allows a person to “step out of the frame of the prevailing ideology,” as Rank wrote in Art and Artist (Otto, 1989) In doing so, the art becomes a reflection of the artist’s assumptions and beliefs. This process of “stepping out” of the frame, of thorough externalisation, creates an unknown field, one with which the artist now has to be reconciled. “What do I see?”  The incongruity bellows loudly. What results is the opportunity for a new way of knowing, or a new way of being, never before known to the artist.  It is a creative act. A brave act of trial and error and great invention: the invention of a new self, one never seen before.

    Ok, back to the task at hand



Telling good stories January 23, 2012

Filed under: Art Therapy,Creativity,Glenda Needs,How art can heal,The Unconscious — insidearttherapy @ 12:15 pm

First up, let me explain that the number on the side of this page, the countdown to the day I stop writing is freaking me out.  How can I stop? There is still a thousand pages rattling around in my head.  What if I miss something out that is really important?  What if I make a blanket statement without clarifying that this is not always the case? What if the reader thinks that this is all there is to art therapy?  So many unanswered questions.  So few days.

I have ritual and research paragraphs to write, and then it is back to the beginning to enter further reading and experiential exercises.  Then, after a final proof read myself, it is up to my trusty editors to pick up my spelling errors and strange writing quirks. I feel so indebted to them already!

I have a trip to Brisbane to teach in early March for Ikon Institute SA. I just keep thinking how great it will be to just walk along the river after a day of lecturing, just eating a leisurely dinner and to NOT BE THINKING I NEED TO WRITE ANOTHER FEW PAGES!

Ok.  On with the show.  Today’s snippet from the book (unedited …), is about story telling and book making. I like to tell a good story. I like to add emphasis at those very funny, sad, or amazing points.  I like to see my listener take the journey with me. There is something quite affirming about watching your listener take the emotional path you have led them down.  I also like to hear good stories. Ones that challenge my thinking, cause me to wonder how I’d manage such circumstances. Stories that make me laugh at the incongruity of it all.  Story telling is largely how we relate our experiences to others.  It’s not often we do a factual account with nothing more than dates, times and actions unless we are telling this to the tax consultant.  Usually we tell our stories with emotion, with something about our beliefs stamped on them.  We tell stories with humour, or with great sadness, and we like nothing better than to ‘see’ that we have been ‘heard’ by watching the listener experience something of the emotion we have expressed.  Story telling has a real place in therapy.

  • Story and Art Therapy

    So often the use of an externalised model of therapy, the construction of metaphor and the freedom to create, result in a great deal of storytelling. This often occurs naturally throughout the therapy sessions and noting details of the story may make it possible to construct an actual storybook as a celebration of the journey taken, the results achieved, or the hurdles overcome.  A method for such storytelling that has become increasingly popular in psychotherapy in recent years, is the Hero’s Journey.  This concept was documented and explored by anthropologists and mythologists such as Otto Rank,   in “Der Mythus von der Geburt des Helden”   (Rank, 1922) .  (Recent English version “The Myth of the Birth of the Hero: A Psychological Exploration of Myth”).(Rank, Richter, & Lieberman, 2004)   and Joseph Campbell in  The Hero with a Thousand Faces (Campbell, The Hero with a Thousand Faces 2nd Edition, 1949) who fully described the stages and universality of this model.

    This monomyth, as it is often referred to, is a universal story structure now used by writers and filmmakers the world over.  Not only does the model beautifully encapsulate the cyclic calls to adventure, the struggles, battles, desperation, successes and personal growth, but the structure of such stories has great appeal to humankind.  Our experience with an old washing machine has parallels with Luke Skywalker’s struggles in Star Wars. We might not have such huge life and death issues to deal with on a daily basis, but for many people, the supposedly small battles can be, at times, overwhelmingly big.  It is in our empathy for the character in the story, that we generate a sense of resonance and this resonance connects human beings.

    Story telling in therapy not only further enables externalisation, metaphoric expression and presentation of unconscious material, but it also allows the story teller the power to connect with the listener, the audience.  The old English proverb, ‘a troubled shared is a trouble halved’ somehow resonates with this ability we have to leave some of our pain with another in the form of empathy.  Even in celebration, we join together, advertise our success and take great joy from the ability of others to ‘feel’ our joy.  

    Thus a story telling and art based book making process can be extremely beneficial in therapy.  The book itself memorialises the experience, the challenges, the battles and the joys.  It is a trophy, a reminder of the journey- The Hero’s Journey!


Dreams and angry elephants continued… January 18, 2012

Filed under: Art Therapy,Creativity,How art can heal,The Unconscious — insidearttherapy @ 2:17 pm

I seem to be jumping around a bit now in my writing. Filling in the gaps.  I am well aware of my tendency to just kept slogging on at something and trying to make it better and better, when frequently all I do is end up rearranging the mediocre!   I think I’ll finish up with dream work now and come back to it again with fresh eyes in a few days.  I think the heat here in South Australia is melting my brain!

  • Engaging art in the exploration of dreams can be facilitated in many ways.  A client can draw or paint the significant images and scenes from a dream.  Often the client will report that they do not have enough clarity or detail. In this instance, reassure the client that the dream came from within, and that allowing intuition to guide them in creating detail will perhaps access the same unconscious material that originally generated the dream.  Remember to again make the images that result, subject to a phenomenological investigation.  Make the art unknown, perhaps by rotation or distance, and ask the client, “What do you see now?”   “What does this mean to you?”  “Does this have some relevance in the (the goal for therapy generally or this activity)?”  “What feelings are generated when you view this image?” (Note the continued externalisation by not asking the client what his or her feelings are.)   Another useful exploration is to create the before and after images of a dream scene.

    Encourage the client to identify objects in the dream, and explain them. What do they mean or represent? How might this object represent part of themselves or experience?

    Ask the dreamer to imagine him or herself as any object or character within the dream. What feelings are generated? What resonance does the client feel with the object or character portrayed?  What dissonance does the client experience? Where are the feelings of power and powerlessness?

    Have the client create an answer to the questions posed by the dream.  For example, the client may decide that the question posed is “What big elephant experience or belief am I inclined to dress up or enhance by adding a feather boa?” and “If the elephant is angry, is this exaggerating approach that I take, going to blow up in my face?”  The client can draw a single dream scene in answer, or perhaps a sequence.


Mask work and toilet paper January 7, 2012

Filed under: How art can heal,The Unconscious — insidearttherapy @ 2:05 pm

Ok, so I didn’t get back with a tidbit yesterday. Sorry.  But here’s today’s progress notes.

I am working on different approaches in Art Therapy and have come to the mask work. It’s a whopper topic and again something I’ve had to prune considerably.  Mask work is so wonderfully powerful, but also given to some hysteria regarding the necessity of masks at all.  Granted, plenty of masks do not serve the wearer, but some masks are essential.

  • Mask, in terms of the psychological device is necessary, to some degree, in successful social interaction.  If we were to be always expressing our authenticity, we may be offensive, patronising or just downright insensitive to others.  In a very simplified example, if I am socialising with a friend whose baby has recently died, my joy at the impending birth of another grandchild may need to be masked somewhat to allow my friend the safety in our relationship of not being too confronted by the reality of joy existing when her own world is so bleak.  In the event that I am suffering, I will also mask some of my sadness, when attending a joyous celebration for another.  Our social competence depends upon this ability to moderate and conceal, to escalate and reveal, when the timing and environment is right.  Think for a moment about some of the people you know who “let it all hang out”, or those people whose beliefs and values are constantly on display.  A common term I hear adolescents using is “suck it up”, often accompanied by “princess”, as if whoever is being addressed is acting as if he or she is somehow more entitled to outrage or despair than the average person.  A lack of competence in ‘mask manipulation’ in this simple sense, can be seen often in people who have an Autism Spectrum Disorder. This is often a result of impaired theory of mind, (the ability to view things from another’s perspective) but can also arise from the individual’s unwillingness to be anything other than fully authentic in the moment.

Really, so much in therapy is about masks; what we mask from the world, what we hide from ourselves, what we project to the world, how we protect ourselves. In the act of making the mask we dwell with this aspect of our psyche, give it some time to fully reveal itself, and to understanding the mechanism that keeps it locked in place.

I am now rather urgently in need of fresh air and something other than a screen and keyboard.  I could also do with a good massage!  🙂



Sometimes the words just flow… December 22, 2011

Filed under: Creativity,How art can heal — insidearttherapy @ 2:17 pm
  • “Attending to notes, also gives the therapist a wonderful opportunity to not attend to notes. Momentarily putting them aside can create an increased intimacy and place greater import on the therapeutic material immediately at hand.”