Regulating the Nervous System and Destressing with Creative Therapy
by Mandy Hollands Ish
There are many day-to-day stresses people experience—being late for an appointment, sitting in traffic, trying to help kids with homework—and at times these can feel overwhelming. Add in the stress of a sick family member, the death of a loved one, loss of a beloved pet, relationships, various abuses, anxiety, depression, grief, or any other occurrence that depletes us physically, emotionally, mentally, and spiritually, and we have a situation where a lot of people are just scraping by, barely coping, or completely exhausted, drained, and feeling hopeless, lost, lonely, and sad. Life can be a lot.
While we know it is not possible to live an entire life without experiencing heartache, stress, or varying degrees of trauma, we also know it is these experiences that allow us to fully feel the joys of life too. So, how do we live fully, even with the hard parts, without feeling like we’re going to be taken down and out by our experiences? First, we find ways to support ourselves, to heal, and to manage day-to-day and greater life stresses through acknowledging, processing, feeling, and releasing them. There are a variety of ways to do this, and I believe a combination of supportive practices that works best for you, that you define for yourself, is the way to go. I like to incorporate meditation, yoga, nature, and art-making into my personal practice because I know these are things that work well for me to help me regulate my nervous system, bring me back into my body, and help me to destress. Working with a therapist, especially when we feel like we are struggling, but even when we want to stay on top of our goals and cultivate a positive mindset, can be an essential and beneficial addition to a personal supportive practice.
Creative Therapy is an experiential arts-based holistic counselling practice, and it can be a wonderful way to facilitate a whole system reset. It is accessible, gentle, and compassionate, which is a powerful way to feel supported, nurtured, and safe. Personal growth, self-reflection, and integration of new ideas, belief systems, and ways of doing and perceiving occur with the creation of art. It is through the expression of emotions, the non-verbal retelling of experiences and life stories, that we can release stress, negative habits, thoughts, and behaviours. This is how a reset of the nervous system can occur.
In a Creative Therapy session, the focus is on visual art-making, however, additional elements like guided meditation, breath work, movement/dance, sound/music, play, and drama may be included. The client leads each session by determining what they would like to spend time focusing on that day, discussion is limited to about 10 minutes, whereafter the client begins creating, and can use any of the supplied materials including paints, clay, sand, loose parts, fabric, and natural materials like shells, stones, feathers, and sticks. It is during this creative art-making practice that the client may experience a sense of flow, where time recedes, the mind quiets, and the art just happens. There is no artistic experience needed and there is no evaluation or assessment of what is created; it is not about the final product looking nice, or becoming a “take-home” piece to frame and put over the fireplace. The art itself is the visual representation of the inner world. It represents what is not spoken, seen, heard, or given voice. When the art is finished, we can see what could not previously be seen. And because we have taken what was inside and given it form, colour, shape, and dimension on the outside, it no longer resides deep inside of us, it has now been expressed. In this expression, we have let go, or started to let go, of things we have held deeply and tightly inside ourselves, things we may not have even been consciously aware of, and we have released them into the art. Now we can stand back and look at what we have shared from a different perspective, as an observer, without judgment, and see what insights might be revealed to us. Through this process of creating, of physically visually “verbalizing,” we have allowed our nervous system to rest, to calm, and to reset. This is what regulation is, and this regulation is how we destress.
In regulating the nervous system and destressing, we are creating space for our body, mind, spirit, and emotions to relax, breathe, and quiet. This quieting results in better sleep, improved communication, improved self-expression, and a more authentic way of being, improved physical health, emotional balance, mental clarity, and a more positive outlook about yourself and your life. The tools you learn in Creative Therapy can come home with you and be integrated into your daily life so the benefits will continue.
Creative Therapy is suitable for everyone of all ages, and is especially useful for people who struggle to express themselves verbally, or when the experiences are too painful to talk about. It is helpful for reducing anxiety, providing relief of depression, and can work well for helping people through trauma, periods of life transition like divorce, aging, pregnancy, and childbirth, and can help people walk through the grieving journey. The art-making does the work, the Creative Therapist guides the process, and the client has control over their experience and their healing, which makes for empowering work.
Mandy Hollands Ish is a Creative Therapist at Sunflower Holistic Arts in Saskatoon. She has a Master’s degree in Education and a Diploma in Holistic Integrative Creative Arts Therapy. Mandy works with children, teens, and adults, and offers one-on-one private sessions in Creative Therapy, workshops, and group sessions. She specializes in Highly Sensitive Children. To book a session or to learn more, please visit www.sunflowerholisticarts.com. Also see the display ad on page 12 of the 27.1 March/April issue of the WHOLifE Journal.