Great Idea for Art Therapy New Year Activity!

Thanks to Pam Kirst for posting about the new year. This quote was in the conversation she posted. You can read her whole post at this link:

The idea involves letting go of the old and making room for the new. Here is the direct description that you can modify lifted from her blog post:

Well, it takes just a little bit of preparation. I go through the Christmas boxes and find one about shoe box size, and I paint it black, so it looks kind of like a coffin. It’s the box where all the bad stuff goes to die! Then, during the party, at about 11:15, I pass around paper and pens. I tell everyone to find a quiet spot where no one can peer over their shoulders, and to write down anything and everything from the past year they’d like to forget or get rid of or just flat out wish had never happened. They fold those up tight, and we put them in the black box. I always save some kind of pretty, flammable ribbon–some years, I’ll tie it up with a bright red ribbon and bow–or maybe silver, if I’ve gotten lots of glitzy wrapping. Then, no matter what the weather, I drag everyone outside to the driveway, and I make a little speech about letting go of all the things we regret or are sad or angry about from the last year. Then we ceremoniously douse the black box with lighter fluid and throw a match on it,and we stand around and watch the bad parts from the old year burn to ashes.

So this is a great idea for a New Year’s Party to both let go of the old year and ring in the new year with positive affirmations. To modify it for a group or individual art therapy directive, I might have the patient(S) make both boxes. I would invite the person or people to write down anything from 2014 that they have been carrying around and feels heavy and that they want to let go of and clean out their house for new things, to borrow from Rumi’s poem The Guesthouse. I might even read the poem to them. Then to write down their affirmations or dreams for the new year and make some kind of container for it.

Well there is nothing like Carpe Diem. I interrupt this post to say that I just tried out a version of this idea and it was transformative. Both I and my patient wrote down things to let go of and read them and put them in a box I already have. She picked a box for her Affirmations/Goals/Dreams. We both wrote down things for the new year and shared and inspired each other. Then she started painting her box. After the first part, she felt a relief and letting go and after the second part, she felt “good”. I did too.

I will collect people’s old stuff in my black box and burn it all somewhere, not the box! And people who want to can make a box for their dreams for the new year, or do a Vision Board instead and actually make a collage with their dreams for new year in the collage.

There are all sorts of ways to be creative and ring out the old and ring in the new; I really love this one so thank you to Pam and Loolie!!! I will post photos of my black box soon…






Boxes, BOXES, boxes! Always Great for Art Therapy!

The box is one of the oldest and most used “art therapy” activities and can be used with just about anyone, age 3 to 103, groups, individuals, families, couples, supervision groups, in any setting, including challenging settings like home visits…

I reblogged a great post about “safety” boxes which gives some great ideas and info for using a box in a healing and therapeutic way that can be even life saving… I happened to see this post recently while in the middle of making boxes with many different patients and art therapy group as well…

One of the most common box projects involves utilizing the box as a kind of “self-portrait”; on the outside and top and bottom of the box, choose images or other materials that express who you are on the outside, and on the inside of the box, who you are on the inside. This can mean so many different things to different people, but it allows for hiding and the idea of having privacy and a space that only you know. There is always the option of doing things inside the box and then closing the box so there is no access to the inside. Otherwise, the top of the box can have a multiplicity of meanings and ways it is connected to the bottom of the box.

I have found the above idea to be somewhat limited and sometimes too personal more recently, as I noticed that making “Affirmation” boxes seems to appeal to lots of people and can help with self care and increasing self worth, confidence, pride and creative productive thinking and combat destructive thinking and urges. The idea is to decorate the box and then write down affirmations or other positive thoughts or even quotes you find inspiring and put them in the box, to use the box on a daily basis to remind yourself of whatever you have chosen to put in your box. It makes the box have a feeling of specialness and also gives it a use and interactive quality that some other kinds of box directives don’t have. The “WISH” box below is one of my patient’s interpretations of this idea. You can mix wishes, affirmations, goals and things you enjoy into one box. The possibilities are limitless…

Boxes come in all shapes and sizes, and I like to have a variety available to allow for a lot of different options: shoe box, rectangular and square kleenex boxes (these have some interesting history, as the person choosing one knows on some level that probably the kleenex in this box was used by other patients and themselves as well as the therapist), jewelry boxes and typical store boxes of all sizes, boxes with tops attached that can be folded to become a box. There are all kinds of boxes that items come in like camera boxes and others. Food boxes like cereal bar boxes and other such boxes can be used as well. I also always have on hand very small “papier mache” boxes, cardboard boxes that I purchase in shapes of a heart, square, hexagon, circle and oval: ( They also come in larger sizes.

In the photos below I have included different boxes in various stages of creation. The majority are ones done by me in session with different patients, and the box with the word “WISH” on it decorated with decorative duct tape was done (not finished) so far over 2 sessions by an adult female patient.

As you can see, all sorts of materials can be used to decorate the box. Like the altered book project the box often presents as an object you are drawn to “cover” to begin with to have something to add to and to kind of transform the box into a new kind of box, especially if it is an obviously recycled box like a kleenex box.

Some great materials for boxes include: fabric and felt, yarn, magazine photos cut out of various types of magazines, words taken from my “Word Box”, decorative and colored paper, foam pieces, old drawings or paintings, etc. Masking tape and duct tape and other decorative tape have become commonplace items that are great for covering boxes, as shown by the box below with the duct tape on it and the one with only masking tape on it. To embellish the box you can use so many kinds of materials from rhinestones and jewels to pom poms, little mirrors, wood pieces, buttons, beads, glass pieces, rocks etc.

Other materials for the box include materials to put inside the box on the bottom if you want your box to be some kind of nest or “place”: sand, rocks, fake fur, feathers, twigs, glitter, old flowers, paper that has been cut into tiny slivers in different colors. I found some of this paper at starbucks, it also comes with some gifts, I don’t even know what it’s called but it gives a feeling of a nest right away…You can put such items in the bottom of the box and also hide objects in these nest like things.

I will be posting more about boxes as they are so fascinating; they also lend themselves to parallel creating in the therapy session. I often make boxes alongside patients with whom I might normally not make any art…










How to create a self-harm safety box…

I found this great post a while ago from this wonderful blog, and I have been meaning to repost it here for a while, as I am making a lot of boxes with people lately, mostly “affirmation” boxes, which could be considered “safe space”, as well as boxes that are more directly like the one in this post, boxes to have at your workplace when you need to feel calmer, or have a quick escape, more like “5 senses” boxes. All these kinds of boxes are great, and as an art therapist, I always welcome new ideas for decorating and using boxes in a healing manner…

All that I am, all that I ever was...

Once upon a time, when I was much a much younger (and sexier) man than I am today, I used to own a box. On a purely aesthetic level, there was nothing special about this box. It was just a run-of-the-mill shoebox decorated with Doctor Who stickers, newspaper cuttings and images of the great Australian actress, Toni Pearen.

What was special about this box was on the inside, for I’d filled it with colouring pencils, rubber bands, bath salts, candy, a mini-colouring book, a couple of novels, a DVD and some (slightly more) risqué images of the great Australian actress, Toni Pearen.

For this box was my safety box; a box I could turn to when my self-harm urges grew so intense that I needed some serious distraction to stop me from injuring myself.

Over the years I owned this box I lost track of how many times it prevented…

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Art Therapy as Food

The holiday season is here and that means trouble for people with any kind of eating or food issues. Holiday dinners and tons of holiday parties which seems so cheerful and fun for some, for others can be big triggers. If you’re in some recovery process of relearning healthy eating and trying to follow a good schedule of meal times and eat nutritionally well, this is a time of many challenges. It’s a good idea to try to be flexible with yourself and allow yourself to eat more and eat things you don’t normally consider healthy rather than fall into the trap of self-punishment or get caught up in obsessing about food and body. It’s also a great time to focus on the non-eating activities of the holidays. Make your own wrapping paper or make your own cards. Make a holiday card to send out to family and friends. Make a fun photo or art calendar for 2012. If you like singing focus on the songs and sing a longs at the parties you go to. Enjoy dressing up if you like doing that…If you go to O.A. meetings talk about this season and your struggles with it tripping you up and any worries you have about getting into old bad habits/and/or destructive behaviors… Just a few suggestions for this time of year that itself is a big trigger for many.

I mentioned some art activities in the above paragraph but this post is meant to try to focus on art therapy and the question, Why is art therapy so effective at helping people with eating disorders as well as body image issues, food and exercise addictions, obsessive thinking about food, weight, body, etc.? Unlike other types of “obsessions” and “addictions”, such as alcoholism and drug addiction, when a person has issues around food and eating, s/he cannot simply avoid food, grocery stores and restaurants for obvious reasons. Triggers are everywhere and food and meal planning are necessities for becoming healthy. One has to change one’s relationship to food altogether and then rigorously watch out for and identify triggers and then have a plan for how to deal with them. For re-learning how to eat, how much to eat, what it feels like to be full, etc., cognitive behavioral therapy techniques can work very effectively to help a person manage their day to day life and find the difficult balance between being observant and watchful of one’s behaviors and familiar feelings or lack of feelings that trigger self-destructive behaviors around food and exercise. Just being able to call your therapist or some other helpful person when you feel challenged and scared you’re going to “relapse” is of course very useful. I have had many patients who reported that calling me when something difficult came up was very helpful or even knowing that s/he could call was also helpful. Speaking up when you’re feeling vulnerable is always helpful and can really get you through some bad moments if you know whom to talk to and can get in touch with him/her.

So where does art therapy fit in? To battle an eating disorder like bulimia or binge eating or anorexia and other related issues, one needs to learn more than ways to avoid unhealthy behavior. Besides becoming armed with ways to identify triggers for unhealthy behaviors and learning to identify one’s feelings rather than using food to literally stuff one’s feelings or cut off from them, you have to learn ways to notice when you feel a self-destructive impulse coming in, what was going on in you and what can you substitute the unhealthy behavior with, ie. learning about self-soothing. Any disorder or issue involving dissociating, getting out of one’s body, etc. can be very much helped by activities that bring you back into your body. A major part of the art therapy process in working with trauma of any kind involves using art making to learn or relearn self soothing.

Art making in the presence of a therapist or in a group with an art therapist can be healing in many different ways. There are many different forms of art making that are soothing to most people. Being given a blank piece of paper or a canvas has been shown to actually increase anxiety and trigger self-criticism in many people. So one must pick particular art making activities that are able to decrease anxiety levels and can even help a person get back in his/her body. Making a mandala with oil pastels or watercolors, which involves tracing a circle or filling in a circle that the therapist has already pre-made for the session is a very popular and tremendously healing activity. Not only are mandalas soothing, as a symbol for the self, the mandala can give one information about one’s feelings about oneself. How you treat the boundary of the circle is of course important. I have found that having people do the mandala with their non-dominant hand can release a lot of worry about how it will look and decrease perfectionistic tendencies. For some, the lack of control of the non-dominant hand becomes too frustrating to be therapeutic, but this seems to be in a minority of cases. Making the mandala on black or colored paper is also a useful way to reduce anxiety and increase excitement about the task, just by being stimulated by the color of the paper or soothed by its darkness. Mandalas are very useful for identifying one’s body energy in the here and now. For example, I have done workshops involving doing a quick mandala at the beginning of the session, followed by some form of meditation exercise, and then a much longer time to make and complete a second mandala. People are always pleasantly surprised to see that their energy at the beginning (often more chaotic or too controlled or else a minimal effort to complete the picture without much satisfaction), has completely changed from the meditation and the art making at the end of the session. The two mandalas can be compared and give a person an actual blueprint or “emotional x ray” of what was going on in their bodies at the beginning of the session, and how changed their energy feels by the end of the session, usually descriptions include “more grounded”, or that the picture feels “more whole”. At some points in treatment or recovery or self-care, it can be useful to do daily or weekly mandalas and then write a few words about one’s feelings and thoughts. put it away and look at your mandalas later as a group to see what changes may have occurred.

Other soothing art making activities involve collage, beading, and decorating boxes as well as making dolls or decorating and covering/painting pre-made dolls. For some people painting is incredibly soothing. The metaphors of art therapy in direct relationship to food are interesting in themselves. The materials and the media are a different form of food which can literally be used for symbolic filling up. If the art therapy session is highly structured with some form of directive and structured around time to make art and time to process, this structure can help a person feel more regulated and grounded. Most impulsive unhealthy behaviors are performed when one is not grounded in one’s body and in some kind of anxious or compulsive state or fughe state. Meals in themselves are what structures the day for many people, and when there is no structure to when one eats, one can get easily caught up in feeling out of control. There are many art directives that are helpful for all sorts of aspects of recovery and regaining a healthy lifestyle as well as a healthy relationship with one’s body. Identifying and making pictures of different forms of hunger: emotional hunger, mental hunger, physical hunger and even spiritual hunger. Just describing and identifying these states is helpful. However as in most cases with art therapy, having an image to play with, observe and help organize oneself is highly useful. It is a great tool for measuring progress in therapy; to have something tangible like a body of work over time — what better way to actually see self transformation/

Of course there are all kinds of directives and activities (the art therapy “menu”) specifically geared around confronting and dealing with eating issues. I have named only a few above. Positive self image collages are another great art activity that is fun, non-threatening and promotes thinking good thoughts about oneself. Making affirmation boxes, a great transitional object for you to bring home and add to on your own. For some people that I have worked with, doing a body tracing by lying on the paper and having the therapist trace around your body and then filling it in in any way with whatever materials there are at hand is very useful in working on these difficult body image issues. Again, this is even better if you are in long term therapy and do one every couple of months or so to be able to compare the different images and notice what has changed for you. This is one of those activities that is best done when you have come to trust your art therapist and are ready to grapple with difficult feelings, even trauma memories, that can surface while filling in the body tracing. This is a prime example of why our training in working with trauma is so important. It is also a great activity to do with pregnant women in a group or individual session.

Besides the structure and the helpfulness of particular directives, non-directive forms of art therapy also work well. I have had patients with eating disorders who enjoyed having choices of what to do and figuring out on their own what they liked, being able to explore my art studio and feed themselves. What can replace walking into a deli or grocery store hell bent on buying certain foods to fill an empty hole inside that one is barely aware of?  Walking into the art studio/office and taking in the visual stimulation. The atmosphere may be overwhelming at first, but the excitement of just picking out a material and playing with it is hard to describe in words and hard to pinpoint in terms of feelings. I get the same feeling in art supply stores, but there is a big difference between an art supply store and an inviting healing creative space. (I knew I was on the right track with my studio when  a father who had no interest in art making suddenly picked up a piece of cardboard and started painting! freely with all sorts of colors; his kids who had been focused on their own projects of course rushed over and asked for cardboard so they could imitate him!) As an art therapist, I can say that there is nothing like the satisfaction of having a patient who has been talking to you for months suddenly out of the blue pick out some art materials with no encouragement, suggestions, or pushing from me. It is delightful to witness!

Certainly the art materials and art making can just function as a good distraction from obsessive thinking about food and body. Havi ng an hour of respite from one’s own intrusive thinking is not only worth while but provides hope that this experience can be repeated, both in the studio and at home. So there is a lot to be said for allowing for discovery and choice of media, especially with people who are very aware of how “in control” they feel from moment to moment. In some cases, consuming the therapist’s materials can replace bingeing. There is a delicate balance between feeding oneself emotionally and spiritually in a session and working on mindfulness, versus mindless consuming and using of art materials that can be perseverative and imitate unhealthy behaviors outside of the studio. I try to stay mindful that any substance or activity has healing properties when used in a mindful prescribed manner versus when the material, activity or person is abused or addictively consumed to fill an empty hole. As therapists, we can sense sometimes during, sometimes after a session, whether the session has been a healing one or a “filler”; it is not so bad to have some sessions be fillers once in a while anyway.

This is only a mere blog post, not meant to be an exhaustive discussion of the merits of art therapy for  people with eating disorders and related challenges. Please feel free to share your experiences as a therapist or patient…

As a side comment, I was thinking tonight about the challenges of being a therapist and eating healthy meals. A lot of us work through the dinner hour and come home exhausted and starved with no energy to cook a proper meal. It can become a major family issue; how to have meals with partner and/or child/children all together and at regular meal times. I try to have extremely moderate goals, such as, let’s try to have a family meal at least once a week, not too great I admit, but I get home late several evenings a week and then there are other schedules besides my own to accommodate. This is going into a new related topic, probably good for next week’s post…