Art Therapy and Anger

 “Seeing Red” ~ Sara Roizen

“Anyone can become angry – that is easy, but to be angry with the right person at the right time, and for the right purpose and in the right way – that is not within everyone’s power and that is not easy.”  – Aristotle

The other day one of my therapy clients asked me if I ever got angry, because she could just not imagine me ever becoming angry. 

I asked my client what she thought before answering (I know…typical therapist response!) But it was important to explore her perception of anger before jumping in with my own answer. Although she could not picture me becoming angry, she guessed that I must get angry once in a while. As the session progressed we had a very interesting dialogue about different types of anger and how it felt, what triggered anger, and ways of handling that type of emotion. And yes, I did eventually answer her question by responding, “Of course I get angry…more frequently than you might imagine. We are all works in progress, and anger in and of itself is not a “bad” emotion. It is what we do with that energy that matters.”

Graffiti Art by Banksy

Anger does not have to become a problem for us. At its core, anger is a pure emotion. So is depression, anxiety, or any other negatively labeled emotion you can think of. In fact, pure anger can be useful. It can make us aware that something is off, or doesn’t feel right at the moment. When harnessed properly, anger can motivate us to make positive changes in our lives. Sometimes things go unchanged in the world because we haven’t become angry enough to take action.

Anger may become an issue if it is not properly acknowledged and explored. Unconscious anger has the potential to harm us or those around us. 
Self – Portrait by Edith Kramer
There seem to be 2 basic ways that people deal with their anger. The most obvious way of dealing with anger is to act out: either physically, verbally, or both. The other way of dealing with anger is to turn it inwards. You may have heard of the idea that depression is actually anger turned inwards towards the self. There is a third way of handling anger, and that is the method that I will be exploring a bit here. The third way of handling anger is to transform the anger into something creative and/or productive. The art therapist pioneer Edith Kramer called the artistic transformation of unacceptable thoughts and urges sublimation.
There are countless methods for exploring and transforming anger in art therapy. Below I have listed a few art therapy experiences that some of my clients have found helpful and transformative. 
Clay Work
Clay is a powerful artistic medium and can evoke many strong feelings by itself. For this reason, using clay with a client should be thought out beforehand and never done in a haphazard way. Clay can bring up primitive feelings and can cause people to regress during a session. This can be a wonderful thing, but the art therapist needs to be mindful of the therapeutic “container” and make sure that the client feels safe. Making cleaning up and washing up into a closing session ritual can also help to contain the energy of the session within the room, so that it does not follow the client home! I have had clients pound on a ball of clay, throw it onto the table, jab holes into it, and twist it into different shapes. Once the physical need to discharge angry energy has settled a bit, the client may wish to create something from the clay (or not). The process of working with the clay can be therapeutic all by itself, even if no recognizable form is created during the session. 
Torn-up Collage
Tissue paper collage

The physical act of ripping up paper or magazines is another way of working with the energy of anger (instead of against it).Try colorful tissue paper, rice paper, newspaper, magazines, construction paper, or decorative paper. Another step that can be added is to write down all of your angry thoughts on paper and then tear up the pieces of paper. In order to transform the pieces into a new art form (sublimation) you can create a collage with the pieces. I like working with “mod podge” as my adhesive instead of glue sticks, because you can lay down many pieces of paper at once and work more quickly. 

Leaves on a Stream

There is a wonderful meditation visualization that I often use when feeling overwhelmed by thoughts and intense emotions. Imagine that you are sitting alone by a stream or river. Next, imagine that each of your thoughts is carried by a single leaf on the stream. As you sit by the stream, picture your thoughts floating by you and disappearing down the stream. This visualization can be particularly useful when strong feelings of anger emerge. If you are fortunate enough to actually live by a body of water you can actually practice this meditation with real leaves. Gather leaves from the ground and write on them, using a permanent marker. Once you have a pile of your “thoughts,” release them one at a time and watch as the river or stream carries them away. This experiential can be done without an actual stream or river as well. Using watercolor pencils, write your thoughts onto cut-outs of leaves on white paper. When your leaves are finished, submerge the leaves in a bowl of water and watch as the watercolor pencil writing blurs and then dissolves!

These art therapy ideas for working with anger are just a few possibilities. I’d love to hear from readers about any other ideas that you have explored!

The Mind is Like the Ocean

Sculpture by Jason deCaires Taylor

I recently attended a 2 day workshop called The Wise Heart and the Mindful Brain. The workshop was led by Jack Kornfield and Dan Siegel. It was an incredible 2 day event and was attended by about 750 people – the majority of us in the healthcare and therapy field. Over the 2 days we explored many subjects through dialogue and direct meditation experiences. I have been meaning to write some posts about this event since it happened. However, I think that there was so much learning and new things to process that I felt a bit overwhelmed to be quite honest! (But it was overwhelmed in a good way – when you just have too many wonderful things you want to share, and don’t know where to start).

I am looking forward to sharing some of my experiences with readers in this post and continued blog posts. To begin with, here is a little information about the 2 presenters.

  • Jack Kornfield is a psychologist, ordained Buddhist monk, and expert in the integration of Buddhist psychology with Western psychology. If you are interested, visit his site at: Jack Kornfield
  • Dan Siegel MD is psychiatrist, mindfulness practitioner who has dedicated much of his life to researching interpersonal neurobiology and exploring the impact that mindfulness based practices has on the therapeutic relationship and the brain itself. You can find out more about his work at: Dr. Dan Siegel
Sculpture by Jason deCaires Taylor

The mind is like the ocean. And deep in this ocean, beneath the surface, it’s calm and clear. And no matter what the surface conditions are, whether it’s flat or choppy or even a full gale storm, deep in the ocean it’s tranquil and serene. From the depth of the ocean you can look toward the surface and just notice the activity there, as in the mind, where from the depth of the mind you can look upward toward the waves, the brainwaves at the surface of your mind, where all that activity of mind, thoughts, feelings, sensations, and memories exist. You have the incredible opportunity to just observe those activities at the surface of your mind. 

– Dan Siegel, MD ~ The Mindful Brain
When I was little I used to sometimes worry about what happened to all of the fish and sea creatures during a big storm at sea. I pictured the boats and people on the surface being buffeted around by the huge waves and the torrential rain. At some point in my childhood, someone pointed out that the fish were actually safe during the storms. 
“Why?” I asked?
The reply was that the fish were safe because they lived deep under the surface of the ocean, where the chaos on the surface could not touch them.
(You can imagine how comforted I was by this newly found knowledge. Now I could focus my animal-loving attention on saving a different species of animals).

Perhaps this link to my childhood musings is part of what drew me to this particular visual metaphor. In the week since the workshop, I have often conjured up this vision of the ocean – beneath the surface. When I stop for a moment to do this, it automatically creates a space in between my experience and my reaction to that experience. This type of practice is what breaks the cycle of reactivity and “living on autopilot.” Try it out next time you find yourself in a very reactive state (whether anxious, angry, or just rushed). Picture yourself at the bottom of a deep blue ocean, looking up calmly at the ever-changing surface (of your mind). You may observe (and even laugh) at all of the activity on the surface. But the core of who you are resides in that still place.

Many mindfulness teachings and practices say exactly the same thing, only with different words. There are many different arrows pointing to consciousness and awareness, but they are all pointing towards the same center. 

Another arrow pointing to the center is art therapy and creativity development. Mindfulness based practices and art therapy (really, all of the creative arts therapies) are often a very natural and powerful integration of experiences. In more recent years they have been blended together more formally and referred to as Mindfulness-Based Art Therapy (MBAT). 

Sculpture by Jason deCaires Taylor

There are many specific approaches to art therapy and mindfulness practice. However there seem to be a few core similarities between the two based on my own experiences. In art therapy I encourage my client to focus on the process of creating art, rather than the finished product. In mindfulness practice we place our attention on the present moment; making space for whatever thoughts or feelings arise. In both practices, the emphasis is placed on experiencing the present moment in a non-judgmental way. A painting is not inherently charged with “good” or “bad” qualities. Rather, it is our own perceptions and thoughts about the art which will assign it ultimate meaning. Similarly, life experiences are not truly “good” or “bad,” but our thinking and interpretation places each experience into one of these categories. 

As Shakespeare wrote:

for there is nothing either good or
bad, but thinking makes it so
So the next time you are finishing a piece of art, music, writing, conversation, or a day at work – take a pause. Before you assign an objective thought about whether that experience was good, bad, beautiful, or ugly, just allow it to be itself for a moment. Don’t worry…your thoughts aren’t going anywhere. I promise they’ll still be there waiting for you when you get back. And there’s nothing wrong with that!

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…

Mindfulness Meditation and Creativity

Ascent ~ Sara Roizen

I’m happy to share that I followed my own advice from my previous blog on “getting unstuck in the studio” and have begun painting again! Aside from the list of ways to get unstuck that I already posted about, I have to say that starting to meditate daily again has had a very positive impact on my productivity in the studio.

There are hundreds of different ways to meditate, and I believe strongly that for each person it is a highly individual choice as to which meditation method(s) are most helpful. I grew up in a family who practiced TM (Transcendental Meditation) on a daily basis. Over the years I have often wavered in my constancy when it comes to practicing TM myself, however I have found that when I practice regularly, the quality of each day is greatly improved.

In addition to Transcendental Meditation, I am always exploring other types of meditation, from different schools of thought. Recently I read a truly helpful and well-written book called The Mindful Way Through Depression: Freeing Yourself from Chronic Unhappiness, written by Mark Williams, PhD, John Teasdale, PhD, Zindel Segal, PhD, and internationally known meditation teacher and author Jon Kabat-Zinn, PhD. In this eye-opening book, the authors utilize elements of cognitive behavioral therapy and the concept of “mindfulness” to enlighten readers on how to work through depression, and other challenging states of mind and being. They write, “Mindfulness meditation allows us to respond creatively to the present moment, freeing us from the knee-jerk reactions that start the cycle of rumination.” (p.81).

The main premise (to summarize a wealth of information) is that when we begin to worry, grow depressed, or experience other negative states of mind, we usually attempt to “think our way out” of the situation. We automatically find ourselves in problem-solving mode. This has to do greatly with the way our minds are usually wired and our discomfort with sitting with and experiencing unpleasant feelings and thoughts. The more we try to intellectually solve our problem, the more we get stuck in the problem itself. Even if we do “find” a solution to the immediate problem, it is not long before a new problem springs up to take its place. In addition, when we try to out-think ourselves out of depression or anxiety we usually experience an onslaught of other negative and related thoughts such as “oh, here I go again – I can’t do anything right!” or perhaps our minds drift to the past to a previous time when we felt upset – and we feel that we are always doomed to feel this way. To summarize, one negative thought usually unleashes a torrential downpour of similar negative thoughts, which creates a snowball effect.

An alternative way to face negative thoughts and emotions is to learn to bring mindfulness to the experience. We do not deny that the emotion is there, but we do not add fuel to the emotion either – by continuing to try and problem-solve. Mindfulness is a skill (like any other) that we must practice and cultivate in every day life. In the beginning it may seem forced, and we find ourselves becoming frustrated with our attempts to be more mindful of the present moment. However, the authors emphasize that there is no such thing as “wrong” mindfulness meditation – as long as we are gently aware of the thoughts as they arise. (We cannot let go of a thought or feeling, until we have acknowledges its presence).

The authors include many daily exercises for developing mindfulness. Some of them are refreshingly simple, yet not as easy as they may sound at first! For example, bring mindfulness to the simple daily chores (that we usually do not enjoy). Try washing the dishes mindfully: truly feeling the way the warm water and soap feel on your hands, the texture of the dishes as you wash them, the sounds in the sink as they clank against each other…Or, when was the last time you ate a meal mindfully? If you’re at all like me, many of your meals are eaten in front of the t.v. while talking, or doing at least three things at once. Maybe set a goal for yourself of having one meal a week at the dining room table, by yourself or with someone else. Eat slowly and with purpose, paying attention to the way the food really tastes, the textures, and the smells. (Don’t forget to turn off the t.v.! Perhaps just play some soft music in the background).

Another one of my favorite practices that the authors mention is one I have been doing for years. It’s called the “body scan.” I like to begin with my head and progress down my body, all the way to my feet. Lie down in a comfortable position and begin by focusing on your breathing. Thoughts will inevitably come and go, so just notice that they are there, and then let them slowly drift on by. Sometimes imagining your thoughts as leaves that you place in a stream can help. You hold on to the leaf for a moment, and then place it on the water and watch as it drifts away from you. Beginning with your head, just bring gentle attention to each part of your body, noticing if any tensions, feelings, or sensations arise in that area of your body. If they do, try not to judge them but just notice them and imagine warm accepting energy going to that part. When that area feels more relaxed and less tense, progress down to the next body part. As you do this exercise, you might find yourself growing very relaxed and even sleepy. If you nod off to sleep a few times it is not a problem – it probably means that your body was holding onto excess tension that is just now being let go. Remember to be aware of your breathing as you do this – but do not judge the quality of your breathing, whether it is “too fast or too slow,” just notice it. When you are finished, take a few minutes to continue lying there and just breathing and feeling your body as a whole entity.

Mindfulness can also be practiced in the art studio, the recording studio, or when we sit down to write…really it can be practiced anywhere! One of the best ways to bring an awareness and mindfulness to our creative pursuits is to simply remain interested in each moment of creating as it unfolds. I know that for myself, and probably many of us, we remain our harshest critic. When I sit down to paint, it sometimes feels as if I am surrounded by a room full of critics, peering over my shoulder and judging each brushstroke I make. And yes, it’s true – someone will always have an opinion about the work that we create. However, what truly matters is that we learn to eventually make peace with our own inner critic. This does not mean that we have no thoughts or opinions or personal striving in the art we make. It does mean that we do not cut ourselves off from the source of creativity, by drowning ourselves in negative self-talk and doubt. It might mean that we do not place as much emphasis on the finished product, but more on the moment by moment creation of the work that we do.