Unless you have been living under a rock, you are well-aware that tomorrow is the royal wedding of Prince William and Kate Middleton. Whether you are getting up at 1am (MST) to watch it live, are attending a viewing party that night, or have no interest whatsoever in this event, it’s nearly impossible to avoid all of the hype. The dress! The ceremony! The bridesmaids dresses! The ring (or absence of ring)! The vows! If you have been married, or live anywhere where marriages occur, you know how much of a crazed circus that wedding planning can be. This is wedding-mania to the millionth degree and if you think that you’ve had enough already, can you imagine what the bride and groom are going through? I am not going to write about my opinions and anticipation of the royal wedding and dive into the gossip pool that is churning ever more manically. I want to take a moment to think about the effect of the pressure, expectation, and tradition on this modern couple, and to shed a light on the strength that it takes to endure such scrutiny.
The lovely Princess Diana is one of my personal heroes. I remember the day she died and could not fathom that it was really true. While she was a devoted mother, loyal friend, and committed activist for many charities, she also was someone who did not hide the way that the scrutiny was affecting her, and I admire her greatly for that. She opened up about her struggles with bulimia and self confidence issues, and she became an icon for being real when so much around you is hidden, secretive, or forced upon you (she also became an amazing fashion icon!!). There is much talk about the toll that being a princess took on Princess Diana and much comparison of her to Kate Middleton in this arena as well as just about every other. It is a tragedy that Diana is not present to see her son get married but also to be a confidant of Kate’s, giving her advice and lending her a helping hand through the exciting but grueling process of becoming a princess.
It is a new time, and William and Kate have long established their relationship and so the assumption is that the struggles that Diana faced will not impact Kate in quite the same way. I hope this is true, and it appears from her poise and candor that she is a confident and independent woman who can withstand even the harshest scrutiny. She’d better be ready for a long defense, because the media is already zooming in on ways that Kate might be “feeling the pressure”. There are figures of celebrity and honor, such as Helen Mirren and the Archbishop of Canterbury, the latter of which will be marrying William and Kate on April 29th weighing in with words of caution. Mirren quotes that “I do feel for Middleton, the stress of all that must be so huge and my heart goes out to her.” The Archbishop has spoken of “his hope that Prince William and Kate Middleton can live their lives in the full glare of the spotlight without coming under the kind of pressure that was experienced by Diana”. He also notes that “since Diana’s death, the Royal family has not had a popular and telegenic female lead, a role that Kate seems born to fill. But with popularity comes pressure.”
And that pressure has already begun. Celebrity blogs are unleashing a tidal wave on Kate’s physical appearance, not stopping until they are convinced that “Kate has stopped eating before the wedding.” With all that Diana endured in terms of pressure that led to eating disorders, I am dismayed to see how the press has no sympathy and appears to have learned nothing from Diana’s distress. Kate and William have shared their anxieties about marriage with ABCnews, citing the typical nerves of “wanting everything to go right”, and Kate sharing that she certainly has a lot to learn about joining a royal family but that “she is willing to work hard to learn quickly”.
As many of us dreamed of when we were little girls, the idea of a modern-day fairytale coming true, where an actual princess is crowned and she and her prince are swept away in a carriage — that is something that dreams are made of. And with tomorrow’s big celebration certainly comes much happiness, joy, and hope for the world in its entirety. I am personally looking forward to watching the big day (and though I too dreamed of being a real-life Princess Kate, I am grateful that it is not me walking down that long Westminster Abbey aisle with millions of pairs of eyes on me!) and I wish the very best for this couple who exude love and whose marriage will unite the entire world tomorrow morning.
We all wanted to be famous when we were younger, right? A ballerina? In the circus? A movie star?
When you are a movie star, athlete, politician, musician or any other type of public figure, fame comes hand in hand with the spilling of your intimate life’s details. While there is much excitement in fame and success, unfortunately there is no privacy in it, as everyone wants to know what jewelry you’re wearing and who you are going out to dinner with — so that we can get a respite from our own stressful lives. Fame is stressful and brings many challenges to it: intense scrutinty on all of your choices, from morsels of food to statements made about current events. I admit I could not handle the pressure of being in the spotlight all of the time and I empathize completely with the struggles that celebrities go through as they try to cope. I have written blogs about the message of truth and hope that many celebrities have spoken about their own struggles with eating disorders and related issues. I believe that when celebrities tap into the power of their fame to encourage wellness, health, and to show that they are real people just like the rest of us, they are doing a service to millions of people that is uniquely in their capability.
Just a couple of weeks ago, Catherine Zeta-Jones opened up about her current struggle with bipolar II disorder and her decision to check herself into an inpatient facility for treatment. She stated to the press that she “wants to take away the stigma around mental illness”, and ABC News consultant Howard Bragman hopes that Catherine’s public announcement of her condition may encourage others to seek help for their own mental health: “I think it will create a teachable moment in a dialogue among health care professionals, among normal people.” I strongly commend Ms. Zeta-Jones for deciding to take care of her mental health — a type of health that is often discredited or pushed aside in terms of severity, attention and treatment. However, millions of people world-wide suffer from various types of mental health conditions and there continues to be a stigma associated with admitting that there is a problem. As a colleague recently told me, “if I had diabetes, I would go to the doctor and get treatment for it. Why not get help for a mental health condition as well?”.
What is bipolar disorder? Why is there a “I” and a “II”? According to the National Institute of Mental Health, bipolar disorder, which is also referred to as manic-depressive disorder, is a brain disorder that causes unusual shifts in mood, energy, activity levels, and the ability to carry out day-to-day tasks. And while we all have ups and downs occasionally, symptoms of bipolar are “severe”, and could result in damaged relationships, poor job or school performance, and even suicide. This is a treatable condition, affecting approximately 5.7 million adults currently. Early signs of bipolar disorder may be intense mood swings — very low depression to a “manic” or “hypomanic” state, which refers to high levels of energy, excessive moodiness, irritability, impulsivity, or reckless behavior. Another recent public occurence that might indicate the prevalence of bipolar are the odd, irrational, and impulsive behaviors of Charlie Sheen.
Bipolar I disorder is differentiated by more frequent mood swings from depressive to manic. This is typically identified by manic or mixed episodes that last at least seven days, or by manic symptoms that are so severe that the person needs immediate hospital care. Usually, the person also has depressive episodes, typically lasting at least two weeks. The symptoms of mania or depression must be a major change from the person’s normal behavior. Bipolar II disorder, which is what Ms. Zeta-Jones was diagnosed with, is defined by a pattern of depressive episodes shifting back and forth with hypomanic episodes, but no full-blown manic or mixed episodes. Given the stresses that she has had in her life lately (her husband Michael Douglas’ very public battle with cancer, his son’s sentence to a five year prison term for dealing drugs, and Mr. Douglas’ first wife suing him for proceeds from his recent Wall Street film), it is completely understandable that she is dealing with mood swings. Doctors note a genetic component to bipolar disorder, which can be triggered by stressful and traumatic circumstances, such as those that Ms. Zeta-Jones has been facing lately. A note: I find it interesting that, for example, when someone like Mr. Douglas is diagnosed with a physical health concern such as cancer that this is openly grieved and addressed, whereas with a mental health condition such as bipolar there is typically more secrecy and avoidance of letting this struggle become public.
What is the cost of publicly announcing a mental health struggle? What is the benefit? I believe these are topics that are regularly discussed among celebrities and people with lots of influence. I hope that we can continue to embrace the normalcy of mental health issues and address the fact that most of them are treatable and can co-exist with a vibrant and happy life. Celebrities are part of our key for raising this awareness (whether they want to or not…) and I am impressed with Ms. Zeta-Jones’ candor about her personal struggle and anticipate the advocacy that others will continue in her footsteps.
Tomorrow is Earth Day, a date in my mind that represents renewal, rejuvenation, and new beginnings. As we focus our efforts on taking care of our planet, we can also take care of ourselves. Our earth has sustained our ancestors and ourselves for thousands of years, yet we often take advantage of its gifts. If we are not aware, we will lose this precious place that offers us bird calls in spring, crunching leaves in fall, fresh cut lawns in summer, and ice skating ponds in winter. It may surprise you to think about how little effort it requires to focus on taking care of our earth — and how that comes hand in hand with focusing on our own health.
How can you do both at once? Simple: choose to walk, bike, rollerblade, or skateboard instead of drive. Do this several times a week, and you will see changes in your own physical and mental health as well! Use recyclable bags when going shopping; re-use plastic cups and plates on a daily basis instead of discarding paper and styrofoam dinnerware. I know that you have heard all of this before and that it’s not revolutionary….but somehow we seem to overlook the importance of our earth’s wellbeing and how closely that is tied with our own. Our environment is not expendable — it will run out and perish if we do not tend to its gifts, just as our own mental health will become eroded if we do not take a break and a breath of air.
I found a couple of helpful blogs that can give further ideas for conscientious living on Earth Day and on every day. We really shouldn’t need to have a specific day ordained to remember to take care of our Earth….everyday should be earth day and for many mindful people, it is.
I know that when I am outside on a beautiful day — no matter what season it is — I can strongly feel how the smells, sounds, sights, and touch of the earth impact my own emotional state. I have written several blog posts about how rainy days and seasonal changes can affect our mental state. We also all know how energizing it is to spend a day outdoors on the cusp of spring, playing frisbee or hiking with our families, with the sun shining down on us. Or how much fun it was as a child (if you can’t remember this, check out your neighborhood children) to get a snow day from school and spend hours outside building snowmen and forts as the snowflakes blanket a quiet earth. These are a blessing, and I encourage you to be mindful when you are interacting with the earth.
How else does taking care of our earth also take care of our selves? When we are drawn outside by the gifts of spring, summer, or fall, we are interacting with our planet and with each other. Our earth encourages us to work together and to form bonds with fellow humans (and with animals too!). You may be a gardener who find peace in tilling your garden. Join a gardening club, go to plant sales, and chat with neighbors about gardening tips – activities that will strengthen your garden’s vibrancy as well as spark your own creative juices. You may love to engage in outdoor sports and look forward to running on the creek trail with your dog on crisp spring mornings. As you take in the beauty of the flowing stream, think about also stopping to pick up any pieces of trash that you see along your path. One of the most fun and endearing earth-saving trends that I have noticed in my area is the introduction of the B-cycle program. Bike stations have sprouted all around Denver recently, and for only a few bucks you can rent a cruiser bike for a day and check out the diverse and colorful neighborhoods that our beautiful city has to offer!
It’s not challenging to take care of our earth, but it does require some thought and initiative. It helps to do it together. This week and weekend, many groups around Denver are coming together to plant trees, flowers, and to clean up the earth in honor of this day of recognition. Think about something that you can do — from something simple such as bringing your own cup to the coffee shop, to something more involved such as cleaning up a local park. Our earth is generous with its gifts and beauty — and we need it to survive. It offers us healthful fruit, vegetables and grains that nourish our bodies and beautiful flowers that color our gardens and homes. This bounty not only feeds our stomachs but feeds our souls and it is our duty to give back to our miraculous planet!
Amazing and inspiring efforts are continually being made to erase and eradicate eating disorders and to raise awareness about their deadly effects. Just last week a group of teenagers from Boulder went to Washington, DC to lobby and testify before Congress in support of the FREED Act (Federal Response to Eliminate Eating Disorders)! Staggering statistics they are fighting against: 45% of girls and boys in elementary schools want to be thinner and and 9% of nine-year-olds have purged in order to lose weight. That’s NINE year olds!! Reality is hard enough when you are older….to be thinking about weight loss and hurting your bodies at age nine is a tragedy. Watch this local news video to learn more about the Boulder teens’ efforts in front of Congress (they got to meet with some pretty fascinating and powerful people!):
So what is the FREED Act exactly? This Act was conceptualized in February 2009 by the Eating Disorders Coalition, which is a group based out of Washington, DC whose mission is “to advance the federal recognition of eating disorders as a public policy priority.” It is the first comprehensive legislative effort introduced in the Senate to confront the seriousness of eating disorders and to jump start research and advance the treatment, prevention, diagnosis, screening, and awareness of these diseases. It also brings attention to the lack of initiative on the part of insurance companies to recognize the seriousness of these diseases and to increase coverage for treatment.
This is revolutionary! The bill, put to the Senate by Congressman Patrick Kennedy, strongly commands attention to the devastation of eating disorders and outlines a plan for education and prevention initiatives — some of which include: studying the “why” and the effects of mandatory BMI reporting in schools; a grant program for training all types of health professionals about eating disorders; plans for educating the public about EDs through public services announcements; and bringing eating disorders into already existing initiatives about obesity (this one I find very interesting as there is a stigma about obesity and eating disorders and we need to understand their link and how both can be prevented). The awareness piece involves educating professionals and the public about the death rates of eating disorders (not spotlighted clearly or often enough), providing care according to universally accepted criteria, and having the bottom-line assertion that “all Americans with eating disorders deserve care”.
A blog that I read wrote last year about the FREED Act, and pointed out that the National Institute of Health (NIH) allows “$1.20 per person towards research for those with eating disorders compared to the $159 per person towards research for those dealing with schizophrenia — a disease whose prevalence is significantly less than those affected by eating disorders”. This statistic underlines the fact that research and effort into understanding eating disorders is considerably lacking as composed to other types of disorders, and their death rates are often higher than those other disorders’. The FREED Act currently has bipartisan support and hopefully will pass! In 2009, the bill had 20 sponsors and 44 different local and national organizations wrote a letter to Congress in support of the act! Now is your opportunity to act as well!!
What can you do? You can write a letter to Congress by writing your local Representative at this link. You can check out the inspiring work of the Boulder Youth Body Alliance and attend a talk on April 25th at 6:00pm on the Naropa University Campus where you can “come hear our youth talk about their experiences of advocating for the FREED Act (Federal Response to Eliminate Eating Disorders) in Washington DC. They will talk about the bill, what they’ve learned, and three will share their speeches from the Congressional Briefing.”
Now is the time for the change that will save lives!
Some of us love cold, cloudy, rainy days as they invite an opportunity to slow down and hole up in our cozy homes…and some of us dread them. It can be hard to avoid letting the clouds from outside seep into our emotional state. During winter months, up to 6% of the population (depending on which part of the country you live in — averages are much lower in warm states such as Florida) are affected by Seasonal Affective Disorder which is a type of depression that is triggered by long periods of darkness and cold. The past few days in Denver have been cloudy and wet — very spring-like, but quite uncharacteristic of typical weather in sunny Colorado. As I have noticed that sun-less days affect my energy level, I thought that I would focus today’s post on ways that we can bring energy and light into our days when there’s a lack of sunlight and warmth to offer that to us from the environment. It is truly amazing how connected we are to our environments, and how the weather, temperature, and signs of nature can impact our view on the world. If you ever feel low, tired, have a lack of energy or motivation, or feel signs of depression when the day is grey and rainy, you are not alone. Let’s try to re-energize our spirits together!
Here are ten ways to re-energize our spirits on a rainy day:
1.) Try to cultivate a mindset that appreciates the present moment for what it is because we know that the sun will shine again. This can be a metaphor as well for obstacles or difficulties in our lives: this too shall pass and everything will be okay. Yes, it may be dreary and rainy right now and that may lower your emotional state, but anticipate the sun shining again and the clouds parting. Believe that it will pass and a rainbow will follow.
2.) Take this opportunity to spend time indoors, doing something you love. All too often we put pressure on ourselves to DO. BE. SUCCEED. ACCOMPISH. When the sun doesn’t invite us outside, it can feel like we must spend that time indoors working on tasks that we do not enjoy. I challenge you to just BE with yourself; put your t0-do list aside and curl up on the couch with your favorite companion.
3.) Break out the board games. Yes, with the ever-imposing advent of technology, some of us may forget what it’s like to sit around a table with a board game. This can be one of the most fun and relaxing activities to do on a rainy day — spending hours with loved ones focusing on one task and avoiding multiple distractions.
4.) Try out a new recipe. Soups and sandwiches are typical “rainy day” food, but it can be fun to try also to bake a cake or make a dish that you have always wanted to try but never had the time to do. Bonus: at the end of the day you have a delicious meal to enjoy!
5.) Break out that rainy-day fund. You know that saying — “save that dollar for a rainy day”. How often do you actually use that money? Well here’s your chance. Use that money (and it doesn’t have to be much….even $5 will do) to buy or do something that you never take the time to do. Something fun can be getting a pedicure or browsing at a bookstore for that book that you have been wanting to get.
6.) Organize. Yes I know that cleaning and organizing is definitely not energizing for many people. So this one might not be for you. However, restoring some order to your shelves or cleaning out that closet that you haven’t peeked in for months can help us feel freer and more relaxed. Bonus: you might find old treasures that you forgot you owned!
7.) Call up an old (or a new) friend or family member. Our lives are busybusybusy. By the time we get work, cooking, cleaning, shopping, etc done for the day, we’re exhausted and don’t feel like doing anything else. We may have let friendships go or put on hold because our lives do not allow for the time to nourish them. I bet that a good friend you have not talked with in a while would be overjoyed to hear from you, and that reconnecting with him or her will leave a smile on your face as well!
8.) Play a musical instrument or engage in an art project. Art and music both have the power to calm us and energize us at the same time and they can feed our brains as well as our souls. Something fun to do can be creating mandalas — or circles of art symbols and colors that have meaning to your life. Pick up your guitar or play on the piano that you took lessons on for years. Teach a friend how to play or create art. Do it together.
9.) Travel to another place. Okay, you might not be able to actually go somewhere but you certainly can travel in your own mind. Watch the Discovery channel and voyage to another culture (me being an animal lover and a travel enthusiast, I love to watch “Life”), thumb through travel magazines, or delve into your favorite book that takes you back in time. Investing our time in books and culture enriches our lives and imaginations.
10.) Get a massage. Our bodies hold our emotions and tensions, and we must release those feelings in many different ways. Getting a full-body massage not only relaxes our muscles, but allows us to relax our minds and just “BE” in the present moment. It is amazing what we can discover about ourselves and our memories by allowing a trained professional to work on our bodies. We must take care of our bodies as well as our minds. If massage is not something for you, take care of your body in another way — go to the gym or do yoga in your living room.
The sun always comes out again and a rainy day does not need to mean that it is a bad day. It is your choice to make it a positive day and I hope that some of these ideas can help you re-energize!
We all know what stress feels like. Stress has become so commonplace in our everyday lives that we expect it each day and sometimes even become dependent on it. There can be some benefit to experiencing stress: like anxiety, a healthy level of stress can help keep us motivated to accomplish our to-do lists or make new goals. However, the negative effects of stress severely outweigh the positive effects and when we encounter a highly stressful situation our reaction may be more physical than emotional. The overwhelm of facing an unpredictable stressor can put us back to our very instincts: will we stay and fight this threat or will we flee? The intent is the same: we want to eliminate the stress, but some of us choose to directly engage with the stressful situation in order to lessen its threat level, and others of us choose to get away from the stress in order to protect ourselves and our loved ones.
Think about a stressful situation — one that required immediate reaction. Perhaps it is having an encounter with someone who is challenging for you to relate to, or perhaps it is facing a fear of heights. Both of these situations require us to make a quick judgment: do you stay and work through the strong feelings this situation brings up, or do you flee? Sometimes you have only a few seconds to decide. While it might be more worthwhile in the end to sit on it and analyze all possible outcomes, weighing the rewards versus drawbacks to making a particular choice, the very nature of a highly stressful encounter makes it impossible to do so. As animals often resort to their instincts, we humans tend to want to think about it over and over again — and this process may increase the level of threat the stress can pose to us.
In tying to the nature vs. nurture debate, I’m thinking about why we react the way we do. Say for example, we encounter a drunk person who begins to make insulting comments about one of our loved ones. You know that this person has a history of becoming violent when challenged. Do you speak up to this person right then or do you try to let it cool down and then devise an action plan? This decision could be based on many factors, but I believe that the factors that most influence our immediate reaction are 1.) perceived level of threat, 2.) the way that we have handled conflict before and the way conflict was handled in our families growing up, and 3.) the nature of the threat — is this person going to emotionally or physcially harm someone that I love? Will confronting them decrease the level of threat or will it raise it? And, since fear is a major predictor of behavior, are we fearful of this person or of the predicted outcome that will occur if we do not confront him?
An aspect of stress that is often overlooked is its physical effects on our bodies. I am always hopeful when someone comes into my office and is aware that the back pain and the arm numbness that they have been experiencing are most likely related to the various types of emotional stressors in their lives. A client described to me the other day that she knows she eats a lot of unhealthy food in order to numb the feelings of guilt she has about dealing with her parents’ deteriorating health. This has in turn caused her to develp shin splints, making it very painful to run. As stress can affect our bodies and our muscles in many ways, highly stressful situations also have a direct effect on our bodies. In the fight or flight moment, our bodies may shake, our throats may become dry, we may lose our appetite or get a stomach ache. Historically, our bodies’ stress responses have been designed to help motivate us to run or fight in that threating environment. Now, as we decide how we are going to respond, our bodies are consumed by the stress of making this choice and our adrenaline is soaring. There are numerous ways our bodies can tell us that they are stressed out. As we become more aware of what our bodies are telling us, we can make appropriate decisions as to how to handle the stress so that it decreases instead of increases.
I know that in the moment, the stress of deciding whether to fight or flee is all-consuming. Experiencing this intense level of anxiety can change our perception of stress completely. This event can in turn affect our digestive systems and our sleeping patterns and disrupt our lives in many other ways. Conflict and stress are unavoidable, but their effects can be treated. If you are experiencing the after effects of a highly stressful situation, please talk to loved ones, a therapist, or a doctor. Also know that the anxiety will subside and this encounter will make you more resilient and strong as you walk down the path of life.
I received an invitation to a cuddle party some years ago, and I admit my first reaction was confusion mixed with a bit of skepticism. Is it like an orgy? a rave? a combination of both? I did not attend, but it seems that since that first interaction with the term, I have been hearing more and more about cuddle parties and their rising fame. So, to set the record straight so that your mind doesn’t wander quite like mine did, a cuddle party is “a safe and structured workshop on boundaries, communication, intimacy, and affection. It is a drug and alcohol-free way to meet fascinating people in a relaxed environment.” Hmmm…..sounds suspiciously similar to the goals that I work with client to achieve in therapy. This made me curious about the effects of cuddle parties and how they are similar/different to the outcomes in talk or other forms of therapy.
Are cuddle parties a form of therapy? The jury is out on that one. The official cuddle party website, which organizes cuddle parties all over the country states that “this playful and fun environment has been a place for people to rediscover non-sexual touch and affection, a space to reframe assumptions about men and women, and a great networking event to meet new people”. The site even suggests that cuddle parties could “restore your faith in humanity”. It seems that cuddle parties can offer a non-judgmental, open, and free space for people to let go of assumptions and physically heal through touching another person. I like this idea, because it seems that our culture has an obsession with “having lots of space”. Whether it is through building huge houses or driving monstrous SUVs, we appear to give off the message that “bigger is better” and “please don’t get too close”. So, I wonder, what happens when we get THISCLOSE?
A cuddle party (also referred to as a cuddle puddle — so cute!!!) is a group experience where one-on-one pairings are referred to as “cuddlebuddy relationships”, and kissing can sometimes occur. At each meeting, the attendees decide on the rules and regulations of that cuddle party. These might have to do with specific forms and places of touch that might be off-limits. Through this collective rule-setting, members can learn about setting personal and group boundaries and can experience the therapeutic powers of intimate connection without the expectation of sex. It also can be an exercise in communication between people of all ages, backgrounds, ethnicities, socioeconomic classes, and spiritual types.
This make me wonder: when we get pleasure and joy through physical connection, how do we determine our limits, wants, needs, and hopes? For some who have a history of a sexual trauma, being physically close with someone they do not know well could be triggering. However, learning that intimacy can be safe and can bring peace might also be a piece of that member’s personal healing journey. Physical intimacy certainly brings out our vulnerabilities: whether it is about body image, sexual attraction, or scars left from previous relationships, some type of sensation occurs in our physical and emotional self as we allow others to get into our personal space. This sensation is what we must take a closer look at to determine its meaning in our lives.
As I was doing research on cuddle parties, I took note of the comments left on sites and videos featuring this innovative event. Some commented that these were “glorified orgys” and that “they should get naked and go home” (this reminds me that cuddle party members are not naked and often wear pajamas or other comfortable clothing). Others were “touched by the affection. For those of us who might not have received many hugs or much affection growing up, cuddle parties offer the healing and acceptance we have been longing for”. And the most poignant: ”It is kind of sad. Human beings are not getting what they need in the modern world; the sense of touch is so important”. Sometimes we just need a hug!
What is your consensus? If you are curious you can join a cuddle party today at the Denver Cuddle Party Meet-up.
Take a look at this YouTube video montage about the first five years of cuddle party culture. I feel that as with every thing that might be a bit new and “different”, the more that we talk about it, educate ourselves, and open our minds, the greater rewards we can reap into our personal selves. Hug a stranger!
Today I met with Denver art therapist Erin Brumleve, who shared with me how art can help clients express themselves, heal, and process difficult emotions in the therapeutic process. I was fascinated by the parallels of our two practices, both of which have goals to help clients initiate change and promote wellness, and I am struck by the ways these goals can be facilitated in diverse ways. Erin works often with children and families who are going through transitions such as divorce, adoption, or processing trauma and through the use of her extensive art therapy room, offers clients an alternative to talk therapy for expressing their feelings (and sometimes using art can decrease anxiety and make it easier to talk as well).
I am writing about art therapy today as a sort of extension of the blog post I wrote a little while back about the effects of music therapy. Both music and art (and dance, another form of healing expression) offer us modalities to express our feelings when sometimes words might be lost or too difficult to say. By singing or playing an instrument, or by drawing the feelings that we have inside, we utilize different parts of our brain to release these buried feelings. Art therapy is a form of expressive therapy that uses art materials such as paint, chalk, clay, markers, and other forms of creativity to freely process feelings and emotions. It is a combination of psychotherapy and artistic representation of the creative process — and it is amazing the affective power that certain types of art can have over our feelings. Have you ever felt moved by a painting or sculpture that really spoke to an experience you have had or evoked a memory from long ago? How about the way that we can seemingly leave our reality behind as we channel passion and discovery into an artistic creation?
There tend to be two ways of looking at the power of art therapy. The first involves honoring the creative and healing process of creating a piece of art. In this way, the actual process of creation and the thought and emotion that is put behind this process is therapeutic — an authentic representation of imagination. The second form of art therapy believes in the powerful meaning that our artistic creations can hold for us. This facet, known as artistic psychotherapy, emphasizes the drawings and products of our work as a means for communicating our feelings, conflicts, and issues in an alternative way. Mandalas, colorful circles with symbolic meaning, have been referred to by Carl Jung as “a representation of the unconscious self”. Art therapy offers numerous forms of transformation, whether it is through the process of creating art or through deconstructing the messages that our art tells us.
So what are the benefits of art therapy? Art therapists believe that art is a form of entry into our lives in a way that lowers the barrier: all of us can be creative in some sense or another, and this process of discovery is a easy way to open up. Art therapy is especially helpful for children, as expressing feelings through drawing or creation is perhaps less daunting than trying to verbalize with words the things they feel (and this can also be the case for adults). Just as a psychotherapist can help you uncover themes and patterns through interpretation of your story in talk therapy, art therapists are skilled at helping us depict the meaning of our art in a way that applies to our everyday reality. Things about ourselves that we may not even notice can be easily pointed out through artistic expression, and this artistic expression can in turn help us communicate our needs and wants to other people in our lives. Erin Brumleve talks in her latest blog post about the effective way that art therapy can help blended families understand that they are not “broken”, and can help normalize the process of divorce and remarriage.
Some of us profess to not “be artistic” (yes, myself included!), and might have anxiety about the thought of creating a piece of art. Don’t let this anxiety place obstacles in your path. Talk with your therapist or a loved one about this anxiety — picking apart the reasons for it can be an amazing entry into underlying concerns (“My art won’t be very good and that will make me feel not good enough”, might be one anxiety). Then think about who you are comparing it to….and why? Art is very personal and very unique. Our art will be like no one else’s and in that sense there is no comparison. I have a series of mandalas that I have drawn as a way to express my own artistic self. I learned through creating them that the symbols and colors I chose are connected to meaningful aspects of my life and as the mandalas progress I can see them aligned with a life transition I am experiencing.
The beauty of art is that it is special, boundless, and our own. It can open many doors for healing and growth.