It has been a busy morning in the school where I work as an Art Psychotherapist; the school has students with autism, communication difficulties and who exhibit some challenging behaviours.
My first client arrived confused and with high arousal, struggling to process an incident that happened earlier in the week. Tools to reduce arousal didn’t connect for them, and their autism can mean that compulsive self-harming becomes an often vicious trap, when emotions overwhelm. Today despite my (and a staff member’s) best efforts to contain the spiral of behaviour and distress it felt like trying to be with a whirlwind.
My second client, who is working hard on their arousal calming techniques, as traumatic memories can flood in and perhaps threaten to drown them, requires slow relational work from me. I have been working with them for several weeks, just sitting, encouraging joint attention and joint working on images, slowly expanding their window of tolerance to allow a space in which we can feel safe.
It’s the mid-point of my day and I am reflecting on the stormy emotional waters that my first two clients have shared with me….
…and I pause
…I try to find my feet. Where is my safe ground?
In preparation for our next Potting Shed event, with a focus on grounding, centring and finding firm ground, this search for a safe space and for connection is at the front of my mind, but perhaps that is easier said than done in the midst of a busy day.
How easy is it for you to find space (literal, metaphorical, physical, mental, emotional) in your working day? Where do you go and what do you do?
I can sense, in this moment that my arousal levels are up, my head and heart are full and I’m in the midst of processing both consciously and unconsciously, my morning’s sessions. When clients are dysregulated (and in the case of my clients also have the complexity of autism, trauma & processing difficulties bringing their own communication challenges) this has an impact on our central nervous system (CNS) and on our ability to manage and regulate our own affect.
We may begin to sense our own dysregulation, feel emotionally overwhelmed, or weighed down with another’s emotions. Where are my anchors right now to manage these experiences, to contain the thoughts, feelings and projections held in my body?
…I try to find my feet and get a sense of them
Recently I was reading about grounding in the literal sense of earthing oneself by walking or standing barefoot on the ground. The focus was on medical benefits of being grounded and the negative impact of living a life ‘insulated’ from the earth.
That idea of being connected and grounded comes into my thoughts as I consider how I find safe ground, somewhere to discharge the energies of the morning. Wandering barefoot around the school would probably be frowned upon, but I can kick off my shoes, spread my toes and take a moment and a breath.
How precious it is to pause and notice our connection and our stillness. Stealing some lines from T.S. Eliot:
At the still point of the turning world. Neither flesh nor fleshless;
Neither from nor towards; at the still point, there the dance is,
But neither arrest nor movement. And do not call it fixity,
Where past and future are gathered. Neither movement from nor towards,
Neither ascent nor decline. Except for the point, the still point,
There would be no dance, and there is only the dance.
I love the contrast in the idea that the stillness is where the dance is, for me the stillness is where the work is, when I can find/make the opportunity for stillness I can notice, think, feel and process.
As trainee I always made space between clients and used to stand and breathe mindfully before each session. I needed the space to prepare, plan and manage any anxiety about the work. How quickly I have let that invaluable space get eroded by emails, meetings, phone calls, the busyness of work.
Where is my still point in this often turbulent turning world?
The emotions of our clients can knock us off balance, send us toppling from our centre of gravity; but what of the other knocks we have to weather:
The behaviour of colleagues or other professionals.
The wider social settings in which we operate, service cuts, austerity…
Failing support systems.
Family or relationship difficulties.
Sometimes just standing still takes monumental effort that should not be underestimated.
…so I pause
…I take a breath
I know what helps me day to day; my daily yoga asana and breathing practice, noticing the moments of stillness when I find them and drawing with the almost meditative focus that can bring.
Creativity is at the heart of Art Psychotherapy, but it can get relegated to the therapy room and I have to remember to give myself space and permission to create.
Recently I started a series of ‘feet images’, taking a little time each day to draw or photograph my feet and, in that creative act, try to quieten the external ‘chatter’ for a moment. Focusing on my feet seems a great place to start to think about balance and grounding, and I have noticed the benefits of this daily earth-bound attention.
…I spread my toes
Perhaps, when home, I will have a chilly barefoot walk in my garden and find a still point to end my day.
Sharon Herriot worked as an Art Psychotherapist for many years with children affected by domestic abuse and bereavement. She has run groups for CAMHS (child and adolescent mental health services) for teenagers with depression, anxiety and who are exhibiting self-harming behaviours.
Currently she works for Ashgate Hospicecare in Derbyshire with patients and their families; She also works for Catharsis Creative Arts Therapy.
Sharon is co-founder of The Potting Shed with her colleague Bethan Baëz-Devine, running CPD Events and Creative Retreats in Derbyshire.
You can make contact with Sharon and Bethan via Facebook
Gaétan Chevalier, Stephen T. Sinatra, James L. Oschman, Karol Sokal, Pawel Sokal
J Environ Public Health. 2012; 2012: 291541. Published online 2012 Jan 12.