Breathing Space

Photo: Adam Farber
I have been doing a 4 week long online mindfulness course. I would recommend this course for anyone who is looking for a simple way to bring more mindfulness into your everyday life. The course can be found here:  
The course combines elements of Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) and Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT). These techniques have been shown to reduce symptoms of stress, anxiety, and depression.
Mindfulness may mean many things to different people. I view mindfulness as a mind-body technique that allows us to increase awareness of our thoughts, feelings, and bodily sensations. When we increase awareness of the present moment, we are able to relax our constant judgments and find more pleasure in “what is.”
Keep checking back for posts on more mindfulness-based techniques!
Below is a short and simple mindfulness practice that I want to share with readers. It is taken directly from the mindfulness course I mentioned above. I like this exercise because it can be done anywhere and at any time. Although it is called the “3 minute breathing space” it can be done in even less time if need be!

3 Minute Breathing Space
1) Acknowledging
 Bring yourself into the present moment by deliberately adopting a dignified posture. Then ask: ‘What’s going on with me at this moment? What thoughts, feelings and body sensations am I experiencing right now?
You could put your inner experience into words. For example, say in your mind, ‘A feeling of anger is arising’ or ‘self-critical thoughts are here’ or ‘my stomach is clenched and tense.’

2) Gathering

Gently bring your full attention to the breathing. Experience fully each in-breath and each out-breath as they follow one after the other.  It may help to note at the back of your mind ‘breathing in…breathing out’, or to count the breaths. Let the breath function as an anchor to bring you into the present and to help you tune into a state of awareness and stillness.

3) Expanding

Expand your awareness around the breathing to the whole body, and the space it takes up, as if your whole body is breathing. Especially take the breath to any discomfort, tension or resistance you experience, ‘breathing in’ to the sensations.  While breathing out, allow a sense of softening, opening, letting go. You can also say to yourself ‘It’s ok to feel whatever I’m feeling.’ Include a sense of the space around you too. Hold everything in awareness. As best you can, bring this expanded awareness into the next moments of your day.

You might like to start using the three-minute breathing space in moments of stress, when you are troubled in thoughts or feelings. You can use it to step out of automatic pilot; to reconnect with the present moment and your own inner wisdom.

My note: This exercise also works very well when imagery is added to the first step. For example, in step one you might draw what the feeling or sensation looks like. A knot in the stomach that feels angry might be depicted by a red tangled-up mass of lines. Often, creating an image of the feelings and sensations helps us to become more aware of that specific state.

Podcasts to Check Out

I recently discovered 3 wonderful podcasts that I wanted to share with readers. There are so many free podcasts to choose from that at times it can be overwhelming! However, I feel that these particular podcasts are incredibly well done, articulate, interesting, and illuminating.

Shrink Rap Radio
Shrink Rap Radio

Tagline: “All the psychology you need to know and just enough to make you dangerous.” 

David Van Nuys, Ph.D. (“Dr. Dave”) is a psychologist and the host of this podcast. The podcast explores psychology, psychotherapy, and psychiatry in a way that both therapists and non-therapists can understand and appreciate. I was initially drawn to this podcast because Dr. Dave had done a series of interviews with therapists who utilize mindfulness in their approach and this is an area of great interest to me. Each podcast explores a theme through interviewing a specific expert in the field of psychology. Topics are rich and varied and have included: the neuroscience of meditation, the highly sensitive person, archetypal dream-work, Buddhist perspectives on psychotherapy, and creativity and the brain.
“Dr. Dave”
The Wise Counsel Podcast
This podcast is also hosted by Dr. Dave and explores similar topics to Shrink Rap Radio, but has an entirely different collection of interviews with mental health experts. Topics are diverse here as well, and the interviews explore multiple theoretical approaches to psychotherapy. I am particularly excited to listen to the interview with Marsha Linehan on Dialectical Behavioral Therapy, an interview with Natalie Goldberg on Expressive Arts Therapy, and the episode with Jeffrey Young on Schema Therapy.
Tara Brach
Tara Brach
Tara Brach is a psychologist and world-renowned expert and teacher of Buddhist Meditation. She has written a number of books, including: Radical Acceptance: Embracing Your Life With the Heart of a Buddha.
Her podcasts are recordings of talks and teachings that she has given over the years. She has a soothing voice and is incredibly articulate. She weaves stories and humor into her talks, which makes her teachings accessible and engaging.
I hope that you explore one or all of these podcasts! At the very least, they will make your daily commute much more bearable. I found myself strangely pleased when my train was delayed for a few minutes the other day…

Updated Blog Name – Official!

My art therapy blog has officially moved to:

Although the name has changed, the blog content will not! I’ll still be exploring topics related to art therapy, creativity, art making, and other related themes. 

If you are linked to my blog through your site, please remember to update the link.

Stay tuned…more posts are coming right up!

🙂 Sara

Same Blog, New Name!

I am excited to announce that this art therapy blog will be changing over to: within the next few days. 

You can still access the blog easily by going to my art site at: and clicking on “Art Therapy Blog” on the top of the page. Or, you will be able to go directly to my art therapy blog at the new website address.

I figured it was time to rename the art therapy blog with an easy to remember name, since (let’s face it), not everyone gets the spelling of my last name “Roizen” on the first try 🙂

I will send out another post once the site name has changed over. So keep a look out! If you are currently subscribed to my blog at: be sure to switch to the new address once I send out the link.

Thanks so much for your continued support and interest in my blog. I look forward to sharing many new posts with you!


Children & Art

At the easel – about to make some hand print art
Painting a group mural
All children are artists. 
The problem is how to remain an artist once he grows up.
– Picasso 
Discovering new ways to use a sponge brush!
The joy of creating
The studio wall – an accidental Jackson Pollock

This evening I was looking through some photographs from the past and began to smile…
I had stumbled upon some pictures of children who I had taught art to!

Teaching art to such young children is not quite the way I would describe the process. At this stage it is much more about accompanying the child as he or she explores the art materials. Most children are intuitively drawn to the vibrant colors, interesting textures, and other engaging qualities of art making. I was not an art therapist at the time (this was the year before graduate school), but I already had a sense for how powerful the creative process could be for the children as well as their parents. 

Although the class was specifically designed for children, I soon learned that the adults were benefiting just as much from the art experiences. At first, many of the adults seemed to need “permission” from me to create. Most adults had not picked up a paintbrush since they were their child’s age. However, I repeatedly saw how easily the adults began to “play” alongside their children once they felt a sense of safety and support within the studio.

It was not the children, but the parents who often need to be reminded about the “process over the finished product.” I often saw parents innocently putting finishing touches on their child’s art work. When this happened, I often asked if the parent would like his or her own paper to create on. This was not meant to embarrass them, but rather to provide them with an actual opportunity to create their own art!

By just witnessing (instead of altering) the child’s art, we give them the message that what they create has intrinsic value – whether it’s a single hand print on a piece of paper, or a painting that they have worked on for hours. 

Although I now do art therapy with adults, it is the inner child of the adult who I usually meet during the session. The inner child is often the part of the adult who has been neglected, overlooked, or in some cases – abused. For any adult, real healing cannot take place until the inner child has been honored and heard.

Future posts will explore some of the ways that art therapists work with a person’s inner child through art making and exploration. Stay tuned!

“Visiting” artist
Such intense concentration!

Self-Care for Therapists

Twin Pull ~ Sara Roizen

Vicarious Traumatization
As therapists, most of us have been a secondary witness to the accumulated traumas that many of our clients have experienced first hand: Physical and sexual abuse, drug and alcohol addiction, rape, illness, and the list goes on…Even the most seasoned therapist cannot help but absorb some of this energy and trauma. This is known as vicarious traumatization. Therapists (as well as other kinds of caregivers) may all experience this form of trauma throughout their work. As we bear witness to our client’s trauma, we act as a “container” for many of the feelings that are too painful for them to hold at the moment. But if we are the container, who contains us? The answer is: we do. But we do not need to do it alone. There are many ways that we can engage in self-care: and it is vital that we do…not only to avoid professional burnout, but also because we cannot truly be present for someone else if we are not present for ourselves. 

Practicing Self-Care
Here are a few methods of self-care that you may find helpful. Some can be practiced in between sessions with clients, while others you may find useful to do after your work day. 

1) You don’t have to be an art therapist to make art!
Many art therapists utilize art making after a session as a way to express and then process any feelings that were triggered by a client. This can be a quick sketch or a painting that is developed over days. The finished product is nowhere near as important as the process of creating it. While making the art, be gentle with yourself and try to suspend judgment. Work as spontaneously as possible. After completing the image, spend some time with it. What is the tone of the picture? How does it feel looking at it? If the image could speak, what would it tell you? If you are in supervision or therapy, it might be helpful to bring this image to your next session and discuss it. Often these images serve two important functions: 1) To release strong emotions (which might otherwise be buried, and 2) Provide us with greater insight into our work with the client, as well as illuminating some of our personal “blind spots” as therapists.

2) Write it out – process notes
Process notes are different from progress notes. Progress notes are clinical chart notes that are written for the purpose of documenting therapy sessions and formulating treatment plans. They are written as objectively as possible – often using phrases such as, “client stated” and “therapist observed” etc. Process notes on the other hand are much more subjective, and tend to be a personal exploration of the therapist’s thoughts and feelings regarding a session. Process notes are never included in a client’s chart. Sometimes therapy intern supervisors will ask for the intern to share his or her process notes during supervision. This is a way for the supervisor and intern to better understand the intern’s approaches and feelings during client interactions. In my second year internship I kept a process note/sketchbook journal, where I processed my feelings and also created imagery related to my experiences. I gained invaluable self-insight through this process, and was able to take greater advantage of my supervision time as well.  

3) Before leaving the building: closing rituals…
Make it a daily habit to create a small separation ritual for yourself before leaving the building each day. Some therapists have a ritual movement that they perform, such as jumping up and down a few times and shaking off the accumulated energy of the day. For others, the simple act of washing hands can bring closure for the day. I often close my eyes for a minute and take a few deep breaths before stretching and shaking my arms. I visualize the heavy layers of traumatic stories sliding off of me. I remind myself that they will be there the next day to dive back into, and that I need the resting space in between to care for myself. 

4)  A hot shower after work
A good friend recently suggested that I begin taking showers at night, when I get home from work. It seems simple, but it can be a powerful ritual. The water physically and metaphorically washes away the accumulated stress and emotions that have built up over the work day. Sometimes I will even spray some lavender oil into the shower, to create an even more relaxing experience!

5) Massage therapy
Most of us can’t afford a weekly massage (myself included), but what about a monthly one? I know that in NYC there are a number of massage schools offering lower priced (and sometimes free) massages, since their students are required to accumulate practice hours to become licensed. Wherever you live, do some searching around, and you might be pleasantly surprised! A massage is beneficial on so many levels. On a physical level it can relax us, release toxins from our body, and ease tense muscles. On an emotional level it allows us a space to just “be.”

6) Don’t forget to socialize
My internship supervisor during my second year of grad school taught me many things. However, one of the most basic pieces of advice that she ever gave me was this: Make plans with friends before work and then tell them not to let you cancel! After a day of work, you will be tired, emotionally drained, and just wanting to collapse. Force yourself to go out and socialize anyway. She was right. After most days of work as a therapist all I want to do is put on a pair of sweats and curl up on the couch…in a way, isolate myself from the world for the evening. However we need to stay connected to the people that matter most to us in life: friends, family, spouses, and children. It is all part of creating a well-balanced life, filled with loved ones, hobbies, adventures, and relaxation time.

7) Join a therapist supervision group
A therapist supervision group is a place where therapists come together to offer each other support and gain insight. Supervision groups come in all shapes and sizes. Some groups are very informal, and might meet just once a month – others meet weekly. There are many art therapy supervision groups that utilize art making as a way of processing thoughts and feelings related to work. Some groups may encourage therapists to take turns giving case presentations about a specific client that they are feeling “stuck” with or confused by. The most important aspect of group supervision is having a place to share and be supported by fellow therapists.

8) Therapists in therapy
This could easily be number one in terms of self-care. (It’s only at #8 because my mind works in a very non-linear way). Not all therapists are in therapy, but I would hope that all therapists have at least been in therapy at some point in their lives. I’ve never been able to fully understand how someone could become a therapist without ever being in therapy themselves. It just seems counter-intuitive to me. (I know not all therapists would agree with this, but it’s my perspective). After all, “You can only take someone as far along the path as you’ve gone yourself.” In order to care for others, we need to care for ourselves. Each person (and therapist) has his or her own personal history, baggage, and accumulated emotions. We do not have to “transcend” all of this to become a therapist, but we do need to be aware of it. Otherwise, the things we have not examined in ourselves may become a barrier to effective therapy with our clients.

9) Pet therapy
My husband and I have two amazingly loving cats (Louie & iko). As soon as I get home they are there – waiting to be picked up and cuddled. Animals are a natural way of connecting to that still place within. When was the last time you saw a cat or dog driven to anxiety by their racing thoughts? Probably never. Spending time with animals often has a calming effect on us. If you do not live with animals, do you have a friend with animals? Offer to take their dog for a walk! (I’m sure they’ll be happy to let you help). Try volunteering at a local animal shelter. Even in a city like NYC, you can certainly find some relaxing entertainment in watching the squirrels dart around the park!

10) Take a breather

 Do not skip your lunch break. I repeat…do not skip your lunch break (and if you’re feeling guilty about grabbing some fresh air, remember that most of us don’t get paid for that time!) A breather can be as short as 5 minutes. You may simply step outside of your building’s doors and take some slow, deep, conscious breaths. If time allows, take a short walk around the neighborhood. If for some reason you truly cannot step outside that day, take a “breather” wherever you are. Turn your attention inwards and place your attention on your breath and any bodily sensations that arise. Check in with yourself…what are you experiencing in this moment?

Art Therapy Techniques: 3 Self-Portraits

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Woman In Yellow ~ Sara Roizen~ 2010
I do not paint a portrait to look like the subject, rather does the subject grow to look like his portrait.    –Salvador Dali
Art therapists use countless approaches and techniques when working with individuals and groups. Sometimes specific therapy techniques are also called “interventions” (not to be confused with the dramatic drug “interventions” we watch on TV)!
Although an art therapy intervention may be presented in a specific way, the ways in which an individual or group may respond are infinite. Therefore, even though interventions tend to be specific, they must always be presented with the unique individual in mind. Art therapists are trained to make interventions based on what they feel about their client’s needs at that moment.

In traditional “talk” therapy, interventions take place through the therapeutic dialogue. In art therapy, the therapist is able to blend the verbal process with the visual process.  

The “3 Self-Portraits” experiential can be a powerful and transformational process for many. Below is a description of how I have introduced this technique to clients:
If this is the first time creating the 3 self-portraits, I tend to use dry materials such as oil pastels, chalk pastels, colored pencils, or markers. This can be an emotionally charged experience, and wet materials (such as paint) tend to be more regressive and are more likely to trigger emotional “flooding” in the client. Whenever possible I give the client the highest quality paper that I have available. If this kind of paper is not available, then of course even white computer paper will do.
Create 3 different self-portraits on 3 separate pieces of paper.
1) how you see yourself
2) how you think others see you
Hungry Ghost II ~ Sara Roizen ~ 2010
3) how you would like to be seen  
I encourage the self-portraits to be more abstract in nature for two reasons. One reason is to prevent the artist from getting overly caught up and distracted by trying to create a perfect “likeness.” The other reason is to encourage the artist to think “outside of the box” and free them up to explore with color, lines, and forms. The individual may work on the portraits in any order that feels natural, and may even alternate between drawings during the time period.
I recently used the “3 Self-Portrait” technique during an art therapy group for clients who were newly diagnosed with HIV. It was a talk therapy group, and I was invited by the therapist to be a “guest art therapist” and lead the group for a night. The group had been meeting for a few weeks already, and so there was a level of warmth and overall comfort among the members.
The group expressed a great interest in making art, but were understandably a bit apprehensive at the same time. I encounter this all of the time when working with adults in particular. Many adults haven’t made art since they were children, and there is often a great deal of anxiety related to the pressure to create “a masterpiece.” For this reason I spent the first few minutes of the group addressing the client’s anxiety and even exploring some of their earliest memories with art. As the group members spoke about art making as a child, they became increasingly eager to “play and explore” again using the art materials. As always, I emphasize the importance of the process over the product, and encourage clients to ease into the experience while relaxing expectations about the finished piece.
The group members clearly took this advice to heart, because a few minutes later they were all working away silently – completely immersed in their art making. When I gave them the 5 minute time check towards the end, I was met with requests for more time! (I am always amazed by how quickly the art process can transform a group in this way).
As the group members shared their self-portraits, the process unfolded organically as it so often does. One client shared a portrait that showed a close-up of one of his eyes. He told us that he had been “afraid of the image” at first because of what a strong image it was. He revealed that most people are caught up in his physical features (specifically his beautiful eyes). He felt that even though people saw his eyes, they did not see through his eyes – and therefore did not truly see him.  The eyes are often referred to as “the window to the soul.” Here is an example of art therapy and working with metaphors, to express one’s feelings on a deeper level.
Another group member was touched when he realized that his “future” self-portrait portrayed himself in a hopeful light. When he shared this the other group members realized that their future self-portraits were all hopeful as well. This surprised many of them, as they had associated being newly diagnosed with HIV with a bleak future. The self-portraits revealed hidden strengths in each of the clients and helped to imbue them with a sense of hope and purpose.
With this group, the dialogue evolved very naturally as a result of the process. Some groups may need a little more guidance from the group leader. Below are some examples of questions that might encourage group discussion.
Questions to encourage further exploration and provide insight might include:
·      Which portrait was the easiest to create? Which one was the most difficult?
·      Do you see any similarities between the portraits? What are the differences between the three?
·      Speak as if you are the image. What do you need to feel complete as the image, or do you already feel complete?
·      Were there any surprises in creating the portraits?
·      If you strongly dislike one of the portraits, what would the image need for you to like it?
·      If this was done in a group setting and the members have built some trust with one another, you may invite group members to share what they see in each other’s portraits. (Often the sharing of images can encourage very powerful exchanges among members).
If you are interested in some of my past posts about art therapy techniques, just click on the “Art Therapy Technique” label in the right hand corner of my blog. Topics include techniques such as: mask making, mandalas, and altered books. 
A-part ~ Sara Roizen ~ 2001