This Too Shall Pass

Working with the clientele I have been exposed to at Redwood Place, I have noticed that many of the clients struggle when it comes to sitting with negative emotions/situations. I doubt that this is something only reserved for the dually diagnosed DD and mental illness population, but rather this is something we all struggle with. Indeed certain aspects of western culture seem largely based on instant gratification.

In any case, the other day I was on the cusp of falling asleep, a time when the creative juices begin flowing, when I thought of the saying, “this too shall pass”. I didn’t pay much attention to it, but it stayed in my dreams…The next morning, as I traveled to work, I realized that this saying resonated with me in a way that applied to not only to my life, but also to my practice as an art therapist.

Working at a residential facility there are often interpersonal conflicts that come up, sometimes over and over again. During these times, I can easily spend half my day conducting conflict resolution, which may be repeated later again that day, week, month, etc. It occurred to me that this may partially be due to difficulties with sitting with the unpleasantness of a certain emotion or situation. Lack of tolerance to the negative aspects of life can cause social relationships to suffer. For example, one might become highly irritable, curt, or avoidant of others. This sometimes makes other clients feel targeted or left out of their friend’s life, which can perpetuate a cycle where client #2 has difficulty sitting with their negative emotions, and both clients become increasingly agitated, requiring some kind of crisis intervention and/or conflict resolution.

Another common scenario I have been exposed to are clients who are frustrated with waiting for their next placement, as they find that they have gotten everything they can out of the program. Sometimes clients wait years for a new placement, depending on their situation. These clients describe feeling like they are in jail, against their will. Indeed, wouldn’t every one of us feel somewhat trapped if we were waiting to move on with our lives for years? In any case, these feelings of frustration are sometimes acted upon in aggressive and violent ways, often against others.

Part of my job as a therapist, as I see it, is to help these clients express their emotions through artwork and through their words, so hopefully these clients will be able to tolerate their emotional states and situations without becoming aggressive. Another aspect of my job is to encourage an increase in frustration tolerance and hope by reminding each client they have choices regarding their behaviors (changing an external locus of control to an internal locus of control). Somehow, though, something seemed to be missing in my job description, in my philosophy of conducting therapy with this population and that something came to me right before I feel asleep, “this too shall pass”.

The idea that everything in life; our emotions, our situations, our very existence is transient. Everything changes, although while we’re in the moment waiting for change to occur time can feel like its moving at a snail’s pace. For me, when I am unhappy with my current situation and there is nothing I can do to change it, in the near future or the distant future, the idea that everything comes to an end brings me both comfort and hope. I think that’s why I have decided to introduce this concept to the clients I work with.

I understand that this is an abstract concept, that it will take time for this idea to be experienced and understood, and that some may never identify with the notion. However, I believe that with some encouragement, especially after a crisis occurs, this notion can be a valuable tool in building one’s tolerance. For example, during a debriefing after a crisis, the client and therapist could discuss or make artwork regarding the emotions and situations involved, how they may have resolved themselves without becoming aggressive, and what coping skills could have been used to help make it through this tough time (i.e., listen to music, deep breathing, take a walk). If a client avoids aggressive or self-injurious behavior during a crisis, discussing how they were able to sit with negative emotions long enough for it to pass by in the moment. It could also be suggested that clients repeat to themselves “This won’t last forever” or “I’ll get through this alright” when they are upset, anxious or disappointed. In art therapy, posters can be made with self affirmations focusing on tolerating emotions.

I have been using many of the interventions described above since I began working with this population, without having analyzed my philosophical stance. I was following the lead of my colleagues, because they have many more years of experience than me.

I somehow feel grounded in the notion “this too shall pass”, and have found a confident direction to focus upon before, during and after a crisis situation. I suppose this means that I becoming more comfortable working with this population and sitting with my own difficult emotions that I experience when clients become anxious, upset, aggressive and/or self-injurious.

Psyc Podcast

I commute 2 hours a day from the Castro Valley back to San Francisco. Recently, I’ve been getting into listening to podcasts…and it occurred to me…wouldn’t it be awesome if there was an art therapy podcast? Well…there isn’t, as far as I know. But I think I may have found the next best thing. Shrink Rap Radio hosted by Dr. Dave deals with a broad range of topics in relation to psychology. Anything from therapeutic doll making, to gestalt therapy, to American Sign Language for babies. I’ve been thoroughly enjoying, and I encourage anyone wanting a good psyc podcast to check this one out.

Dr. Dave also does another podcast called Wise Counsel, which I’ve also been getting into. He interviews some of psychology’s living greats like Yalom and Barlow. I know I’m probably just a psyc nerd, but I find it really exciting to hear these great thinkers who influenced modern psychology discuss their theories and their works.


My sketchbooks are like diaries…they capture the situation, mood, mental state, ideas, blind spots, fears, humor, defenses and subjects of importance that I may have be experiencing at the moment I chose to draw. I also sometimes use my sketchbooks for planning more than upcoming art projects. I use them to write to do lists, reminders to myself, thoughts and random phrases. My sketchbooks help me organize my life, while at the same time they are holding environments for private concepts that I may not be ready to release to the public.

I don’t think it is a coincidence that while completing my Masters degree, Drexel University’s Art Therapy Faculty encouraged their students to use sketchbooks as ways to capture the dynamics of discovery, which were inevitable throughout our academic and experiential learning.

The experience of using sketch books as a way of containing and reviewing emotions, ideas, learning, and probably way more than can be described in words, has allowed me to introduce the concept of a sketchbook/diary to the clients I work with.

Book Making

Because many of the clients I work with have difficulties with dexterity in their hands, and because many of them refuse to use scissors for fear they might hurt themselves, introducing traditional book binding techniques using a needle and floss did not seem appropriate. Instead, I opted for a simpler approach, stapling the spine in order to create a book.


– Stapler and staples. I purposefully made sure that there were only 3 staplers in my group of 10, in order to promote client interaction and sharing.
– Colored paper, 12″ x 18″
– White paper, 12″ x 18″
– Materials for decoration: markers, oil pastels, foam shapes, glitter glue, etc…


Before group begins, make an example of a sketchbook to show the group. This can help to structure the group and allow them to visualize what the outcome of the group may be. Pre-making a book can also allow you to know the limits of your stapler- how many pages it can staple through. This can help avoid client frustration with the directive- that is, if one of the group’s goals is success orientation, which is common when working with people with developmental disabilities. However, if the goal of the art therapy group is to increase frustration tolerance, you may want to allow the clients to discover the limits of the stapler for themselves.


After introducing the example sketchbook, ask the group if anyone can explain what a sketchbook is, what it can be used for. In addition to their responses, explain times when one may want to use their sketch book, for example when they are upset or sad, when they are having a feeling that they are having difficulty putting into words, when something good happens, etc. Also explain that what they are making is theirs. Emphasize that the contents of a sketchbook can be kept private, or they can share their books with people that they trust, like their therapist, a family member, etc. Encourage the clients to keep their books in a safe place.

Ask each client what color they would like to have on the outside of their sketchbooks. Once each client has what will be their cover, ask them to fold the paper in half. Then hand out approx 6 pieces of white paper (this may vary depending on the capability of your stapler), and ask the clients to fold those papers as well. Demonstrate placing the white papers inside the colored paper, fold-to-fold. Then, demonstrate stapling- how to hold the paper while you staple, trying to staple as close to the fold as possible. Some clients may need help with stapling. I like to encourage some of the higher functioning clients to help clients who ask.

Once the books have been assembled, place other art media on the table so that the clients can decorate the covers of their sketchbooks and make it their own. The purpose of introducing other art media at this point is to help avoid some clients from feeling overwhelmed with the amount of stimuli in the group. The art therapist can further structure the group by limiting the types of art media available to the clients.

In terms of closure, I find it useful to have each client take turns sharing their sketchbooks with the group. This helps to promote socialization, group interaction, and is often self-esteem building since clients often recieve positive feedback for their products.


Every group member was able to construct and decorate their books, some independently and some with help.

Some clients seemed to be taken aback by the concept that these books were for them, and they had the choice whether to share its contents with anyone. One client in particular repeated this concept to every staff member present within the art therapy group. This made me wonder how little privacy some clients with developmental disabilities are afforded in their lives. Some clients need help dressing, toileting, showering and cleaning their rooms. What then is for them and them alone?

Since the books did not contain very many pages, I suggested that once their sketchbooks were filled up, they could request to make another one. Several clients have taken me up on this offer, as they have been consistently writing and drawing in their sketchbooks.

As the first art therapist to be working within the facility, it is very gratifying to introduce new ways of self-expression to the clients. As with all techniques for self-expression, some things work for some people but not for others. For this reason, I try to encourage each client to remain open minded to new experiences, while remebering that rigidity is common amongst adults in general, people who suffer from mental illness, and people who have been diagnosed with a developmental disability.

Motivation for Art Making

Christo and Jeanne-Claude are known as environmental artists, who use rural and urban environments for mass scale projects. For example, in 1983 they wrapped 11 islands in Biscayne Bay, Florida, in flamingo pink fabric. More recently (2005) they created “The Gates”, where 7503 saffron colored fabric panels hung in Central Park, NYC, for 16 days.

In a National Geographic article written for the November 2006 issue, Christo answers the following question (p. 41):

Why…Why surround 11 islands with 722 200 square yards of pink polypropylene? Why hang 7503 saffron yellow panels in Central Park? Why?

Christo responds:

All our projects are absolutely irrational with no justification to exist. Nobody needs…surrounded islands. They are created because Jeanne-Claude and I have this unstoppable urge to create. They are made for us first. Not the public. Artists have a huge white canvas and an indestructible urge to fill it with color. There is no reason. Of course, if Mr. Smith likes the canvas, it’s good, but the true artist doesn’t make it for Mr. Smith…

While reading this quote I wondered to myself, isn’t this exactly what we mean when an art therapist tells his/her clients that art is not about making a “pretty picture”? It’s not about pleasing others with what comes out. It’s about self expression and sometimes it can take self-reflection and processing to become even remotely aware of the significance of the symbols used in one’s artwork. I suppose Christo would agree that those who participate in art therapy are truly artists no matter what the final art product.

Artx and the Rehabilitation of Terrorists

As a part of a government sponsored religious reeducation program, an art therapist in Saudi Arabia is using art to help junior jihadists explore new ways of conceiving the world and getting out their anger. Interestingly, the participants are chosen after they have served their jail sentences and have passed a test showing their willingness/openness for change. Follow the link to the full story, and also a video that was shown on The National, a Canadian news program.

Stress Balls

I first learned how to make a stress ball, using a balloon and flour, when I was working with Jeanette Pailas ATR-BC at the Friends Hospital Eating Disorder Unit in Philadelphia, PA. The purpose of making the stress balls was so that the clients could use the final product itself during times of anxiety, but also the directive may represent a metaphor for eating: filling up a stomach, which is stretchy like a balloon.

I’m presently working with developmentally disabled individuals. They too have difficulties managing their anxiety. One client in particular tends to squeeze his had so hard in a fist, that he causes lesions to his skin with his nails. This inspired me to introduce stress ball making in my art therapy group. I prestructured the group so that there would be only a small number of steps, insuring the success of the clients (an important goal of artx with developmental disabilities).

Here is a break down of how I structured the group:


– Balloons
– Flour
– The top part of a water bottle (a make-shift funnel)
– Spoons
– Small cups
– Colored pencils


– Stretch a balloon over the top of a water bottle. Prepare as many balloons and funnels as needed according to the size of your group.
– Prepare several small cups with flour. Each cup should have a plastic spoon in it, making it easy to transfer flour into the funnel. I decided to have a cup of flour per person, but having the clients share with each other can be an option to promote group interaction.


– Introduce the idea of a stress ball- what it is, what it can be used for. I find it important to remind the clients that balloons can pop…discussing squeezing the stress ball in the palm of their hands vs. digging your nails or twisting the balloons.
– Pass around a pre-made stress ball, so that the clients an see and feel an example of a balloon stress ball.
– Have a quick demonstration about how to make a stress ball. I began by holding up a pre-prepared balloon/funnel and spooning in some flour. I then demonstrated how to use the back of a colored pencil to pack down the flour. I let the group know that if they needed help holding the funnel or packing down the flour, they could ask (I usually have a recovery specialist in group with me. This can be very helpful if there are several clients needing assistance at once).
– Hand out materials.
– As the group began working, I encouraged them to share their techniques- what works to get the flour down and what doesn’t.
– We discussed what situations they themselves might find the stress ball handy.
– When a client felt that he/she had filled up the stress ball enough, I helped them tie off the balloon.


I found that with encouragement the clients were able to successfully work through the frustration of stuffing the flour into the balloon (it takes some persistence). They also tended to be hesitant about getting dirty. Redwood Place unfortunately does not have a designated art room. We tend to use common areas, or a conference room. I also wonder what would happen if the group had the freedom to “get messy”. So far I haven’t introduced paint or clay in the short time I have been working there. In any case, I realized quickly that flour (as long as its not wet) offers easy clean up. You can sweep it off the floor and brush it off your clothes. I therefore demonstrated this fact to the group by pouring some flour on my pants, and brushing them off, like new.

After the group was over, several clients seemed proud of their work. I was surprised, however, that the next day the same clients were asking to make more stress balls. Their peers, who had not joined us for the previous art therapy group, had also seen the stress balls, and wanted to make their own.

Over the next 3 days the art therapy group consisted of making stress balls. Some clients wanted to make a new one because their last one broke. Others wanted two or three- one for their room, one for their pocket. Some wanted to make an extra one for family or friends. All in all, this seemed to be a successful directive that many clients enjoyed and found useful.

The Musings of a New Art Therapist…

I’ve been at my new job for a little under 2 months. In that period of time I have begun introducing new ways of expressing oneself using structured media and directives. Here are some examples of the successes I’ve had over such a short period of time:

I decided to introduce collage in one of the artx groups. I pre-cut words and pictures (for added structure), keeping them in separate tupperware containers for easy pull-out and put away. Immediately the clients began searching through the tupperware, finding pictures and gluing them down onto colored paper. Some clients held up words and asked me to read the word to them, or explain its meaning. For one client in particular, the use of the pre-cut words seemed especially important to her. She appeared excited and began smiling as she completed her collage, periodically holding up her paper and saying “this all makes sense!”

It occurred to me that people with developmental disabilities often have deficits in their reading and writing abilities. Many of my clients describe thinking they are stupid and wonder how they appear to others. Perhaps having pre-cut words can help to lend a voice to these people, who may have difficulty finding words to say out loud what they think or how they feel.

Several clients have begun spontaneously drawing their feelings when they’re feeling anxious and/or upset. This is surprising to me because the clients I am speaking of rarely come to the artx groups. I had no idea of the developmental level in their artwork or that they even wanted to use artwork as a form of self expression/catharsis. In fact, many times when these clients are invited to attend artx group, they refuse.

Recently, one client went into the art supply cabinet after an incident with a peer and took out some collage words, pictures, paper and markers on her own, when the artx room was unoccupied. This client then came to my office with her drawing. She seemed to use it as a way to help both her and I understand how upset she was.

I think this vignette illustrates how important it is that all clients have access to art supplies at any given moment. This story also reminds me of the natural expressive and healing quality that art making has.

Developmental Levels

Working with developmental disabilities is a challenge — especially when the groups are not split up according to cognitive ability. I have some clients who are naming the scribble, while others are functioning on a schematic level in the same group. I find that art as therapy is a great approach with the lower functioning clients, however the higher functioning one’s seem to benefit from art psychotherapy as well.

In an effort to ballance the needs of the group, I’ve been trying to take a middle road approach (similar to Wadeson) when planning directives, but the fact remains that some of the clients do not have the ability to process abstract concepts due to their developmental level. Sometimes I wonder if my approach goes over their heads. At the same time, these clients don’t seem to notice any discrepancy between themselves and others while they are engaged in the process of art making, in a similar way that a 4 year old doing artwork alongside an 8 year old does not seem to notice the differences in cognitive ability between himself and the 8 year old. They seem to take pleasure in the art making process and don’t seem self conscious of others in the group.

What I have found very tricky, however, is introducing a particular directive in a way that everyone can understand so that the lower functioning people do not become agitated because the concepts are overly complex and so that the higher functioning people feel challenged and acknowledged. I guess that will come with time.