art therapy

Porch Portrait Photo Project

IMG_0599 (1)As we entered into our first week of social distancing, I pitched an idea to friends in my neighborhood to take pictures of them standing on their front porches. This project was an instant hit, and is serving many purposes, including socializing with the limitations of social distancing, documenting this experience, and providing a creative activity to connect or reconnect with community.  I invite you to join me on this creative endeavor.

I am hearing about many parts of the world where leaving one’s home is forbidden during this pandemic, and violating this prohibition can lead to jail time or hefty fines. If you live in a place where you can still roam about, perhaps this might be a great project to introduce to your neighbors. Aside from the primary issues around the COVID-19 pandemic, LONELINESS is perhaps the largest issue that will come out of this experience. 28% of Americans currently live alone. While this might have been manageable in our lives just a few weeks ago, this current dilemma of losing all elements of community can be debilitating to many people who live alone. Do you have anyone in your world who might really appreciate you dropping by (from a distance) to take their picture and send them some good vibes?

I am not a photographer, and am actually using an I-phone to take my portraits. The options for editing a photo on any smart phone are so advanced, anyone can take a pretty great photo with this small device. I would also encourage emailing a consent form (I used Google forms to create mine), offering subjects the options of them alone keeping the photo, sharing the photo in your friend group and/or sharing it publicly. Getting consent is essential to this project (especially if you are considering posting any of the images on social media). Good luck and spread the creativity to keep our communities humming along.

 

Coronavirus Coloring Page

Coronavirus with watermarkRemember the recent coloring book craze for adults? Although the trend faded, now might be a great time to return to the simple activity of coloring. This repetitive, bilateral act can serve as a very powerful medium and a self soothing activity.  Starting and completing something simple can also be helpful to people who are living through something chaotic without an end in sight.

This image of small mandalas was created to be appealing to all ages, and across cultures. Each circle looks like a microscopic Coronavirus. Humor, even during the darkest of times is essential. For seasoned therapists, we can attest to the importance of keeping low levels of humor accessible during traumatic moments and through processing trauma.

The act of anthropomorphizing or managing something that feels unmanageable can also help a person truly get a hold of or own the thing that feels overwhelming. At this writing, one third of the human race is experiencing some form of a quarantine to stop the spread of the COVID-19/Coronavirus. It might be impossible to make sense of such a staggering number. Pulling back a bit to get some perspective is really important. Coloring, and other forms of self care is a great way to “pull back” a bit. Trying to fall back on activities we normally find stimulating might be too overwhelming if you are in a state of shock.  I have found that turning off the news for small increments of time can also be helpful.

This coloring sheet can also be a great tool to share with children. Children need to understand what is happening around them. If they are not informed in any way, they might create their own narrative, and wonder if they caused all of the changes they are seeing at home. If they have too much information, they can be overwhelmed. Coloring, and using a playful Coronavirus image might be helpful for gently explaining this experience, and offering an opportunity for them to express their emotions.

Please print the image above. As you color the picture, please spend time figuring out your small piece of this experience. Print a few copies to share with your housemates or whomever you are with in your home. This will end. We cannot stay home forever. When we return to our active worlds, we will be wiser, kinder, and more appreciative of the everyday things we might have taken for granted a few weeks ago.

Cocooning vs. Quarantining- Words and Attitude

african monarch butterfly on white calla lily flower

Photo by Magda Ehlers on Pexels.com

Let’s switch up the negative names of our new Coronavirus reality to something slightly more life affirming. We have been told to hunker down and quarantine (the word hunker is defined as to squat or crouch down low). Before we switch up the names though, we might need to re-imagine what we are doing. Can you use the metaphor of a caterpillar, chrysalis, and butterfly to mark your current experience of being stuck at home? Please try this project to muster some resilience.

 

  • Please find some  paper in your home, or just use your imagination to conceptualize this creative angle on our strange situation.
  • Please divide your paper up into three sections.
  • In the first section, please create a caterpillar. If you are not feeling the creativity urge, maybe just jot down a list of things you were doing a few weeks ago that might represent a less robust version of yourself (for all of us who were stretched thin, this might not be too hard to imagine). My list would probably include drinking too much coffee, not completing projects, not returning phone calls, etc
  • In the second section, please draw a cocoon or chrysalis (chrysalis is the technical term any third grader might remind you of, should you refer to the metamorphosis of a butterfly using the word cocoon). Again if this is too base or juvenile for your liking, please use this space to jot down a list of enjoyable and life affirming things you might explore during this home time.
  • In the third section, please draw a butterfly to represent a new and improved version of you who might walk out of your home when this is all over (yes- it will end). Imagine yourself reconnecting with the outside world in a new way with wings or something cool like that. A fresh perspective which is just about the same as new wings. We will all be different. Social isolation is not in our genetic makeup, so reconnecting with our species will probably be pretty spectacular. Again, if the butterfly metaphor is a bit pedestrian for you, perhaps just jot down a list of how you might envision reconnecting with the world.

More than two billion people are currently on lockdown in their homes on the planet as of this writing. That number might actually go up, as experts have warned that this week is going to look pretty grim. This unprecedented experience is perhaps the first time in human history that such a massive number of people are all essentially doing the same thing.  The quest to stop the transmission of Coronavirus is being called a variety of ominous things such as shelter in place, lockdown , quarantine, social distancing, self isolation, and other negative things. In some cities, this experience is being enforced with harsh punishments for violations, with soldiers in the streets. What would happen if we changed the languaging to conceptualize this as something more palatable to the human experience? Could we call it cocooning? hibernating? pausing? resetting our compass?  Slowing down? Respecting our elders and fragile fellow humans? Being a great Homo sapien?

How we conceptualize this whole thing will really determine our mental health throughout this experience. If we shift our experience to call this cocooning, we will be emerging from this quarantine as a completely different person, community, world, and species. Things could go wonderfully or terribly in this process, but there are some theories being kicked around that this might be a jump in consciousness caused by a radical shift in re-evaluating our values, and a radical appreciation for life we might have ignored just a few weeks ago. Stay safe and be well.

 

The Art of TIME in a Coronavirus Quarantine

black and yellow analog clock

Photo by Stas Knop on Pexels.com

TIME. When we look back at this radical week in human history, one vantage point we might observe it from is how we handled time. Many people on Earth are simultaneously experiencing a cataclysmic shift in reality, as our familiar lives have come to a screeching halt. Several of my therapy sessions with clients over the past few weeks included conversations on the possibility of a quarantine, and how that might provide some respite from our crazy, busy lives. Now that we are really experiencing that reality,  what to DO WITH ALL OF THIS TIME is proving to be a bit overwhelming. Navigating through news that is changing fast, finding provisions, worrying about our livelihoods, and just making it through each day this week is simply overwhelming.

The real question we might want to ask ourselves in this stage of this thing, is how do we  master time? All of us secretly wanted extra time and now that we have it, what should we do with it?  How do we navigate through the very confusing, very scary, and very real, new world we have entered? I would like to propose two very simple tasks to try today:

Quarantine Wish List

Please make a list of things you might accomplish for your quarantined time. Please add some practical things (my first task is doing my taxes for the US deadline of April 15). Please also add some pleasurable things that you never have time to do, and some projects you might have started awhile ago, but never had time to finish. Next, hang your list in a prominent place.  Then, and this is most important part, do not pressure yourself to jump into any of these projects too quickly. I have spoken to several people this week who are feeling guilty they have not been productive this week. Please do not pressure yourself to be productive or creative.

We are all in a state of shock, and when we are in that place, it is very hard to do anything beyond  just being in survival mode. This might looks a bit different to each of us, and might include binging on Netflix, binging on news, buying toilet paper, etc. Having your wish list handy, but not feeling pressured by it can serve as a buffer to make the time you are spending now feel more temporary, knowing that when you settle into your new reality, you will have a lot to keep yourself busy.

Make a Daily Schedule

Last night, I forced my kids to go to bed on time as if it were a regular school night. They protested, and I held my ground, explaining that as soon as our schedule goes haywire (or we stay in pajamas all day), we will have succumbed to time in a really negative way. We actually didn’t create any schedule during the first few days of our new “at home all the time” lives. I did this as a social experiment to see what would happen. As suspected, everyone kept drifting to their screens, and the days marched along in a loopy, slow, negative way.

We have since created daily schedules for each person in our home as the days drift along. These have included meal times, hang out times, solo time, together time, etc. Although we are not being super strict at following them, the lists are still serving as boundary makers to make our boundary-less new world feel more manageable. What would your daily schedule include?

In my therapy sessions last week, my clients all fantasized how great a quarantine might be, because they would suddenly have the glorious TIME we never had enough of in the lives we were living just last week. When this is all over (yes, it will end), we will walk out of our homes with new attitudes, new perspectives on humanity, and perhaps will have regrouped enough to envision a different and more beautiful life for ourselves and our loved ones. Step one of this transformation is learning to reclaim time.  

Having an accountability partner in this process can also be important. Feel free to post your lists here. Hang in there!

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: http://www.thegrumpmeter.com.

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 (https://www.nytimes.com/2017/10/11/magazine/why-are-more-american-teenagers-than-ever-suffering-from-severe-anxiety.html). 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: heartlandarttherapy@gmail.com.

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.”