by Lauren Fallat, MA LPC ATR-BC
It can often be challenging for individuals across the lifespan- children, teens, adults and older adults- to manage the intensity of their emotions, which in turn can lead to maladaptive behaviors, strained relationships, poor decision making skills, disorganization and mood instability. Art therapy channels this need to soothe our nervous system, or our brain system, when it is activated by providing a variety of media and processes that promote relaxation, calming and containment.
So what is self-soothing and how does it work in art therapy? Self-soothing is the process by which we intentionally engage our senses- smell, taste, touch, sight and sound- as a way to communicate to our bodies that we are safe. When our bodies perceive a threat, it automatically reacts with an internal alarm system, which we know as the fight, flight, freeze and submit response. This response is automatic, meaning we are not consciously controlling the changes that occur to our heart rate, breathing, muscle tension, sweatiness, etc. In order to gain control in situations where we are safe, we can engage our self-soothing skills.
This is an effective technique to use with toddlers who are struggling to regulate their emotions in response to a boundary that was set, with children who are struggling to manage feelings of sadness or frustration, and with teens who are anxious about a test that is coming up or college applications. These are also useful for young adults and adults who are struggling with the stress from balancing school, work, family obligations, important life decisions and leisure time.
Here are some examples of activities that may be effective self-soothing strategies within an art therapy session that can also be practiced at home:
Pour Painting- Engage your sense of sight by watching the different colors that get poured onto the canvas swirl and blend together to create a unique image
Splatter Painting- Engage touch and sight by flicking a paint brush or designated art toothbrush and watching as the different paint splatters onto the page.
Edible dough- Engage your sense of touch, taste and smell by creating an edible dough that can be molded and shaped like clay. Experiment by adding different food coloring and extracts that contain colors and smells.
Color Mixing- Engage your sense of touch and sight by practicing mixing different paint colors together. You may use a variety of paint brushes or your hands to experiment with this process.
Tissue paper collage- Engage your sense of sound, sight and touch by ripping up different colors of tissue paper- noticing how the paper feels in your hand as well as the sounds it makes when it is being ripped. Attach these pieces to an object, paper or canvas to create a new image.
Still-life drawing- Engage your sense of sight by challenging yourself to create a drawing of something that you see in front of you!
Blind-Contour line drawing- Engage your sense of sight by creating a drawing in which you do not pick up your drawing instrument from the paper once you start and you do not look down at the page- keep your eyes on the object or individual that you are drawing only!
Nature Objects Painting- You might engage your sense of touch, sound, sight and smell by first going on a nature walk- listening to sounds in the environment, smelling different flowers and plants and then touching the objects that you see around you. Collect objects that you may want to use to create your sculpture or painting- consider pine cones, sticks, leaves, shells, petals, rocks and pebbles, etc. If you choose to create a painting, you may challenge yourself to use the objects as your paintbrush- try painting with a pine cone, with a stick, with a leaf and see the markings that they make!
Remember that for each of these activities, your intention is to fully engage in the process and be present and aware of what you are trying to achieve- calming yourself and bringing about a sense of relaxation and peace.