art therapy

Seasonal Affective Disorder and Art Therapy

scenic view of dramatic sky during winter

Photo by Pixabay on

Winter can be pretty brutal on a person’s mood and outlook on life. Please listen to this podcast exploring seasonal affective disorder, creativity, and ideas on staying cozy through the winter months.


The Grump Meter- a tool for anger management

Unknown-2We are living in grumpy times. Perhaps it was reality television that ushered in this era of acceptable high drama., or the daily stress of 21st century living.  News feeds offer no shortage of daily occurrences of people behaving badly in public places, and to one another. As an art therapist working in the trenches of the mental health field, most of the clientele I work with come to therapy with anger as their primary problem.

One of the very best tools I offer my clientele for anger management is called The Grump Meter. This tool was developed by  Dr. Janet and Lynn Kaufman,  a mother daughter team of social workers. After working for years in the “system” with foster kids, high conflict families, and residential treatment facilities for kids and teens, this beautiful tool was created. The Grump Meter is a color coded chart to identify emotions, and help people self regulate to prevent explosive behavior. The grump meter’s  formula is:

  • Red          Explode
  • Orange    Stop
  • Yellow     Caution
  • Green      Grumpy
  • Blue         Calm

The simplicity of this tool can offer rapid transformation in high conflict families, classrooms, schools and even work settings. Reducing communication down to one word and one color serves as a profound way to enhance communication, and prevent explosive, out of control situations. How? For people who escalate quickly, reducing their wide array of feelings/behavior down to one color or word can serve as an effective way to communicate to others,  For people who have a difficult time expressing themselves, identifying their hidden emotions with one word or color offers a platform for self expression.

I have observed families quickly alter their dysfunctional systems  when they incorporate The Grump Meter  into their lives. When a family member can say something like, “Mom, I am on yellow,”  family members can respond, and aid the person in self regulating, and/or offering them the emotional support they need to not spiral out of control. Offering people a space to express their emotions, rather than just shutting them down is an empowering and respectful way teach self regulation and emotional intelligence.

I have worked with  literally thousands of people in inpatient psychiatric facilities over the years. In intake interviews, I often ask, “if you would have been able to share with someone what you were really feeling, would you have ended up in this crisis?” People almost ALWAYS share that communicating what they were feeling to a loved one would have prevented their crisis (in the United States, suicidal or homicidal behavior usually precedes admission to inpatient psychiatric facilities).

If you decide to use this tool, it is best to have participants make and decorate their own grump meters using paper and markers, colored pencils or paint. When several grump meters get hung up in a home, classroom or office, the idea gets reinforced as a the tool for communicating complex emotions. As participants make their own grump meter, asking what they can do to calm themselves down at each color is helpful for cultivating self regulation. People often think this is a tool just for children, but  is it often the adults who are really in need of grump meters!

For more information on The Grump Meter, books, workbooks and additional ideas, please follow this link:

Anxiety, Teenagers and Art Therapy

Scan_1Anxiety is on the rise in the teen landscape. The alarming rate of growth in this trend has been well documented ( Do you know a teen who is suffering from anxiety or depression? What can you do to help them?

As an art therapist and a marriage and family therapist, I have spent a few decades on the front lines of this crisis,  working with teens suffering from anxiety, depression, unresolved trauma, addiction etc. My encounters with teens in crisis have mostly occurred in inpatient psychiatric facilities following  suicide attempts and other risky behavior. Observing the human race from this very unusual vantage point led me to begin asking two questions to the teens I encountered. I have now asked thousands of teens ( post crisis) the same two questions:

If you would have/could have communicated better with your loved ones about how you were truly feeling, would you have tried to kill yourself?

If you had more rules/structure/boundaries set up at home, would you  have ended up in a psychiatric facility? 

Almost every teen I have asked responded with a sheepish, “NO” to both questions,  leading me to the conclusion that families, loved ones, schools, coaches, social pressures and the system all play a huge part in the crisis unfolding before our eyes. It is tempting to blame the child or teen for their situation, (especially when the standard procedure involves sending them away from their families to get “fixed” in inpatient facilities), often leaving them feeling tremendous shame in their extreme actions. When we can truly explore our system and our contribution to their situation, we often discover that extreme teen behavior is the symptom or reaction to an entire system out of whack.

Much of the current literature on teens and anxiety blame the post “helicopter parent” world, which has not let this generation have enough negative experiences to learn how to recover from small emotional injuries. Perhaps there is some truth to this, but the real question to sort out how to create resilient teens, and how to help them navigate through this world we have created for them.

The rise in smart phone technology to the teen experience has added an unprecedented new frontier to this unfolding anxiety crisis. Many of us have forgotten how quickly this technology has crept into our existence, and many adults are utterly shocked when they discover how of their child’s existence is wrapped up into their digital realities. As adults travel down the same path of being deeply connected to their devices, it is not surprising that our children are mimicking our behavior.

Art therapy is a form of therapy that offers families an opportunity to communicate their authentic feelings, and work toward healthier functioning as a whole system. Using simple visual art directives during therapy sessions, families who engage in therapy with trained art therapists often get straight to the point much, much faster than a typical talk therapy session.

Teens are notoriously cryptic communicators, contributing to the crisis in many families of simply having no idea of the level of emotional pain their child has endured. Offering your teen some time for honest, old-fashioned, screen free, communication is often the first step in creating a healthy place for your teen to open up.

Please explore the possibility of finding a time for some honest communication with your teen. If you find that your teen is experiencing something bigger than what you can handle, please consider seeking counseling for your family. If you need help in finding the best therapist to meet your needs, please contact me and I can assist in this journey. My art therapy practice is in the state of Kansas, but I can offer you assistance in locating a therapist wherever you live:

The art featured intros post was created by this blog author, Sherri Jacobs, and is part of a series of paper cuts entitled, “The Therapeutic Journey.”




Alzheimer’s Disease and Art Therapy


Ready to be frightened by the future? Please don’t stress about a zombie apocolypse, because it looks like the next big thing to fear is Alzheimer’s disease. Due to the demographic shift of an aging species, the predictions are that by mid century, humans over the age of 65 will outnumber the amount of children living on the planet. Among this population, The World Health Organization predicts that diseases related to memory loss will triple, to reach 115 million people worldwide by mid century. Does this number shock you? It should. Sadly, there is no cure for Alzheimer’s disease.

People diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease and their caregivers often travel down a seemingly tragic path, as able bodied and independent adults slowly lose the ability to function at their optimal level of living. The choice for family members or loved ones is to follow them on their devastating path or create a new reality of living in the moment.

As families and caregivers move beyond the grief that accompanies this disease, often there is an opportunity for a new way of living. Once a person with dementia loses their ability to perseverate on the past or contemplate the future, there is a freedom with living in the present tense. While outsiders often find memory care units tragic and frightening, insiders/caregivers all recognize the surprising  beauty of living in the persent tense. In well run facilities, and when stress levels are diminished, really the primary emotion flowing in these places is love.

As an art therapist who has worked with the dementia population for the past seventeen years, my observation and experience is that what happens in “the moment” can have a residual impact on the rest of the “moments” in a person’s day. For years, I have observed people with dementia respond well to an environment of integrity. My fledging theory I am creating for working with families with dementia is called, Integrity Systems Theory.

Webster’s dictionary defines integrity as: the state of being whole and undivided. When the entire system supporting the person with Alzheimer’s shifts their focus from what was to what is, there is surprising opportunity for creating moments of integrity, and FIND the whole person who stills resides behind the memory loss.  The result? Lowered stress levels all around, making everyone’s day to day living slightly less stressful.

Art making and listening to music are fantastic avenues for reaching people who seem to have disappeared into their disease. Please take the time to watch the riveting documentary on the power of music/creativity with this population:  Alive Inside.



ART and art of not judging fellow humans

sherryjacobswebThe Olympics serve as an incredible opportunity for collaboration, cross cultural understanding and personal growth, even from the convenience of the couch upon which one sits to watch the spectacle. As the Winter Olympics of Sochi progresses, millions of people are tuning in to witness these 17 days unfold.

Detractors might be focused on the security threats and unfinished amenities connected to this particular event, but at its essence is an unusual opportunity for exploring our connection to our own culture. For those lucky enough to be hanging around the Olympic Village for the next few weeks, their opportunity for cultural exploration is heightened by living in such close proximity to “others” with their sleek outfits displaying their nation of origin literally on their sleeves. Reports from the front describe a beautiful and magical atmosphere, with people from so many different cultures living in close proximiy to one another.

Today’s art exercise will take this opportunity to reflect on our own culture and investigate our attitudes towards others outside of our culture. Please find some paper and jot down some messages you are getting from your culture these days…maybe from: popular songs, commercials, twitter feeds, newspapers, blogs, friends etc. Are there any messages of an “us” vs. “them” peppering your thoughts? Can you bring your thoughts down to a personal level and think about anyone you encountered in your day as an “other” whom you might have unfairly judged? Could you be brave and share your list of messages with them as an opportunity for a cross cultural experience? If you can, there is a strong likelihood that you will have your very own Olympic Village moment. Good Luck Earthling.

Recycled images and words

Today’s project is a bit more complicated, but well worth the effort. Please find some stuff (magazines, junk mail, newspaper etc) headed for the recycle bin, glue/tape, scissors and paper. Think about how you are feeling today. Search through this pile of paper and see if any words or images jump out that reflect your current mood. Cut them out and assemble them on your page (using glue or tape) in a collage form. Might appear a bit elementary, but if you check out any Southeby’s catalogs over the past 30 years, you will see that some people have managed to use this medium to convey some serious emotions and earn millions of bucks along the way.  

Yesterday’s project: How do your hands look? Are there more things you are trying to let go or more things you are hanging on to for this coming year? Can you set some more goals based on the results from this project? Do any of the things you wrote match the goals set over the previous week’s art exercises? Are you being completely honest about the things you need to let go of, or are there more that are too difficult to write down, think about or deal with? Sometimes it is good to go back in a few days and look at artwork and reevaluate whether you were being honest with yourself.