LonePack Conversations – The Alternative Therapy Series: Expressive Arts Therapy ft. Avantika Malhautra

Throughout our journey in Season 2, we’ve introduced ourselves to and explored various alternative means of therapy that can aid our mental health and help us express ourselves better.

Also follow us on:
Apple Podcasts

Valerie- Welcome to LonePack Conversations! I’m Valerie. 

Today we’re talking to Avantika Malhautra, a psychologist and registered Expressive Arts Therapist. She’s the founder of Soul Canvas – Art for Wellness, and a faculty member at the Dance Movement Therapy training courses with the Creative Movement Therapy Association of India and Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai.

Hey, Avantika!

Avantika- Hi, Valerie.

Valerie-  Thank you for being here. 

Avantika- Thank you for having me.

Valerie- As mentioned earlier, we’ve had people with backgrounds in different modalities of alternative therapy introduce us to art, dance, music, writing, narrative therapy and much more. How does Expressive Arts Therapy differ from these forms?

Avantika-  Expressive Arts Therapy is really an inter-modal process which means that you’re moving between different art forms within a particular session. With each of those intermodal transfers from one art form to another, there is an exploration of another layer and depth that is revealed in that process of using the arts for self-expression. It really taps into this multi-sensory approach. Some of us might notice that we are more visual, we think and perceive the world more visually, for some of us it’s more based on sound and auditory sensations, for some of us it’s about touch and feel and the kinesthetics of it. 

Expressive Arts Therapy includes all of those different art modalities because when it was founded in the 1970s by Paolo Knill and Shaun McNiff, and then others who came along on the journey, they were all artists from different fields. They were musicians, visual artists, but realising that there were overlaps between the artforms itself, they included sight, sound, voice, movement, breath, gestures, dialogue and writing. All these different forms came into the process and that’s when they realised that it’s hard to separate them and that there’s a lot of value in bringing in these different forms together and tapping into all these different sensory mediums in order to facilitate individuals to release, express, share, have insights, and all of this in the context of growth, transformation, healing and even social change. 

Valerie-  Right. You told us that it’s a way of bringing different art forms together for purposes like healing, sharing, expressing and releasing our emotions, in a way. What kind of mental distress has Expressive Arts Therapy been able to help with?

Avantika- It’s all kinds of mental health issues that one can explore through Expressive Arts Therapy. The basis is really creating a safe therapeutic facilitated environment with a trained Expressive Arts Therapist and if we look at the kind of reasons that people might come for therapy, it’s going to range from stress to anxiety, depression, working with trauma, maybe exploring relationship dynamics, conflicts, decision making. 

So it’s really the whole range all the way to exploring grief or eating disorders or body image, gender and sexuality because if you look at all of these mental health issues, they live in our bodies and we experience the world through our bodies. The memories and experiences that contribute to some of these issues are related so the mind and body can’t really be separated, it’s one. That integrated approach can really help you look at all of these mental health issues. It’s really not different from Talk Therapy in the sense of the benefits that one can have and the reasons why you might go for Expressive Arts Therapy. 

Valerie-  Avantika, what got you interested in Expressive Arts Therapy as opposed to Talk Therapy? What’s a form that you resonate with the most?

Avantika-  Personally for me, it’s really my love for the arts. Right from my schooling years as long as I can remember, I’ve seen singing and speaking in public, creating art as a child and moving onto college, I was engaged with dramatics and in my teenage years, I used to really dabble with oil pastels and poetry and those were really the spaces where I came alive.

Valerie- So you’ve really done a little bit of everything then!

Avantika- Yeah, pretty much! I’m definitely one of those and I can’t say that I’ve specialized in any one but of course, I have my preferences. What I can remember is that I was a shy, nerdy but also a very social child growing up and the school I went to really put a lot of emphasis on extracurriculars and the arts, and that was just amazing for my own personal growth and development and it brought a certain aliveness and confidence in me. So of course, it was the love with the arts and engaging with the arts throughout my life, along with having studied psychology and falling in love with the subject. 

Being someone who wanted to help and support others, it led me to taking this path and quit a more conventional safe corporate life. That’s what really brought me here and I’ve never looked back. I think it’s been one of the best decisions, to do something you love for work. In my work personally, I use visual art and writing and poetry. I’m most comfortable working with these languages of the arts and writing. When it comes to choosing to attend workshops for myself, I think movement and drama seem to really bring out different sides of me that are very revealing and it helps me explore my edge in those spaces. 

Valerie-  That’s nice! You said that Expressive Arts Therapy is an intermodal form of therapy. You have a little bit of all of the alternative forms working together, right?

Avantika- Yes, you may have two or more in a given session. 

Valerie-  Is it easier for someone who doesn’t have a preference for one specific form to do Expressive Arts Therapy where they can maybe understand what they’re more inclined to, as opposed to starting with one specific form?

Avantika- I think the way we approach it in therapy is firstly to help the individuals feel at ease with the materials and with the modalities. It’s a very gentle bringing in and helping them express through just basic sound or gesture, it could be really small movements, it could be painting to music for instance, or just getting comfortable with the different modalities. For that, it doesn’t really require you to have any kind of skill in it. The only thing that’s really needed is a level of interest and curiosity to want to explore through the arts. 

You might ask the individual if they’ve had any previous experience with the arts and if they have a particular preference when it comes to a certain modality. If you look at it at a really basic level, it’s about playing, it’s about shaping, it’s about creating and experimenting in the realm of a particular theme that’s being explored in therapy, which is linked to what the person came in for and the issue they might be bringing in. 

In that play, it’s not about skills or about how beautiful the art is or how well you’re moving your body, it’s more about connecting with yourself through this language and through this being the medium, and that is possible when there is a non-judgemental space, when there’s no sense of right and wrong, and it’s really the job of the therapist to bring the person into it very gradually and smoothly. There’s a whole system and method to it in order to ease the client into the process. So at that point, it really doesn’t matter whether they’ve had experience or not with a particular art form.

Valerie-  Following up on that, when you talk about the job of the therapist, how do you, as an Expressive Arts Therapist, group together various forms of these creative therapies for each client to know what they’ll resonate with best and help people understand what they’re feeling through the process?

Avantika- It’s a good question! If I were to take you through a session for instance, every session has a particular flow. The client might come in and in the beginning, you would engage in some amount of talk to understand what brings them here, what it is that they’re looking to work with or explore, and then the session moves into a warm-up. This warm-up could be to ground and sense into the current moment, it might be to move into music and really coming into your body, it may be painting to music. These are all different ideas as to how one might warm-up to the space, the materials and coming into the present. 

From that warm-up, you lead them to an immersive experience with the arts. This could be a movement exercise or a visual arts experience and really staying with the art itself, staying at the surface of the work, looking at the quality, textures, colours, and what feelings are emerging from that, what sensations it’s bringing up. It’s woven around a theme which is explored in depth. We may move from visualizing to painting to writing, within this process.

Valerie- So when you say “theme”, what exactly do you mean?

Avantika- By theme, I mean that we might be exploring say boundaries for instance, and the theme could be that or the theme could be experiencing grief and expressing what that feels like through paper or clay or collage. The theme would be the topic of exploration, it could be exploring different paths and having to decide which one to take. It could be about staying in a relationship or leaving it, it could be about a career. It’s any question or intention that’s being held or a particular issue that the person is dealing with that could be more long term or long standing. 

You might explore a particular theme over many sessions and as the theme develops, you’re exploring the art and the art is what you’re shaping and creating, and you’re staying with it at the surface level. At this point, you’re really engaging the left brain, which is the creative, emotional side of you and not bringing any rational mind thinking into it. The arts really take you into a different world, an imaginary play space where you are constructing and deconstructing and transforming things through the medium of the arts, through the props and through working with the body. 

After this, you step back and observe the process. Everything that just happened, looking at it and saying what was that like? Was there something that stood out? Was there a particular moment in that movement or a part of a picture that really seems to attract you or surprise you, and what is this opening up to? It’s more of this reflective space, from where you transition into bridging that into asking how this now has meaning for you in your life? 

We circle back to the original conflict or distress that the person came in with, and then we look at what insight is emerging from this process. Then typically, the session ends with that sharing and debrief so talk therapy is also a big part of Expressive Arts Therapy. Then we might end with a closing ritual at the end of the session. 

Valerie-  Right. It sounds like a very comprehensive process where you talk about what you want to explore and then through art, you express yourself and then at the end of it, you have something to take away and learn from, so that you can help transform your life.

Avantika-  Absolutely. The beauty is that when you’re working with the arts, it gives you an opportunity to move away from that rational thinking mind and really tune into your body, where you’re tuning into the more subconscious layers and tapping into a wisdom or a truth that is inherent within you.

Valerie-  Looking back at all the episodes we’ve had so far, we’ve understood that therapy for mental health goes far beyond conventional talk therapy, and that people can express themselves and their emotions through various modalities. Keeping this in mind, where could people go from here? How do you envision the future of alternative therapy?

Avantika- I think that alternative therapies are becoming extremely relevant and very very valuable in our present time, especially when we’re moving so fast in our minds, sometimes our body is not at the same pace and it’s so important to pause and step back and actually bring those two together in alignment. I think there’s an openness now more than ever before, to even higher creative or expressive arts therapists as part of teams of counsellors in schools and NGOs and even in hospitals as a part of mental health departments.

It’s really exciting to see that slowly and steadily there are job opportunities that are opening up, there are many more training programs in India itself, and this physical-emotional health connection is becoming undeniably important. If someone is experiencing persistent headaches, body pain or indigestion, it certainly has some roots that are connected to their emotions, beliefs and ways of thinking, and we can’t run away from that. 

With all the awareness that’s there and thanks to podcasts like yours, there’s now a possibility of seeking therapy and seeking it through different creative and alternative ways and very slowing, the stigma around seeking help in a country like India is starting to dissolve or at least there are healthier narratives that are coming to the surface. Being part of the community of therapists working in this field, all of us dream for it to become mainstream and also to have an equal respect and value for the arts and the science, which comes together in this whole umbrella of Creative Arts Therapy. I’m really hopeful!

Valerie- I think you summed it up really beautifully when you said that it’s so important to keep your mind and your body in sync because they may move at a different pace and when you take about alternative therapy, you talk about how you can use your body more and actually just take a step back and understand yourself better. You explained to us the motive of alternative therapy and you take these little steps towards trying to shatter that stigma around seeking help and seeking alternative therapy as a means of therapy.

Avantika- Absolutely.

Valerie- Avantika, thank you so much for talking to us today and spreading light on what Expressive Arts Therapy is. When we spoke about different alternative means of therapy, it’s only fitting to end our series on Expressive Arts Therapy which basically brings all of these forms together in different ways. You spoke to us about the importance of alternative therapy, knowing that we can understand our bodies so much better. Hopefully it’ll help bring awareness to people about what alternative therapy is and help bring it into something that’s more mainstream and sought by people without that stigma of what it is or what it’s like.

Avantika- Absolutely, You summed it up beautifully and I think it’s just important for people to know that no problem is big or small and that there’s absolutely no shame in seeking support and there are so many ways in which you could seek it. Thank you so much for these really insightful questions. It really got me thinking and reconnecting with my own journey in this field. 

Valerie-  It’s been a pleasure. Thank you so much, Avantika

LonePack Conversations – The Alternative Therapy Series: Animal-Assisted Therapy ft. Dr. Taylor Griffin

Someone once said that “The best therapist has fur and four legs”. Let’s find out how true that is as we explore Animal-Assisted Therapy in this episode.

Also follow us on:
Apple Podcasts

Valerie- Welcome to LonePack Conversations! I’m Valerie.

Today we’re talking to Dr. Taylor Chastain Griffin, the National Director of Animal-Assisted Interventions Advancement at Pet Partners, an organization dedicated to improving people’s health through positive interactions with therapy animals. She has a background as a dog trainer, therapy dog handler, and in mental health.

Welcome, Taylor!

Taylor- Hi! Thank you so much for having me.

Valerie-  It’s great to have you talk to us. In the introduction, I mentioned that you have a background as a therapy dog handler and also in mental health. How have you found animals positively impact human lives?

Taylor- Yes, that is a great question. I have found endless ways that animals can positively impact our lives. It’s not just in my experiences but also in research. There are so many different findings that support this claim- Animals can help us model relationships. We can learn how to trust and take care of one another interpersonally. They also help us with our physical health. There are studies that talk about us being more active when we have animals. We have more sense of motivation, a reason to get up in the morning when we have animals in our lives

There’s something intangible and indescribable about the way we tend to react when we have animals around us. When I was a counselor and I had animals in my practice with me, I found that people trusted me a lot more quickly. They would just come into the office and smile and feel comfortable because of that animal’s presence.

Valerie-  Right. Taylor, what is your relationship with animals like? As far as I know, you have a lot of dogs at home!

Taylor- Yes, my love for animals really brought me into this field. I would say that over the years, the more I’ve learnt about animals, the more I can on the perspective that they’re my teachers,- that they have something to teach me and I would just like to do all I can to be a messenger for what they bring into our lives. I see everyday when I come home that my animals greet me with love and with happiness no matter what mood that I’m in. It motivates me to try and do the same in my relationships. I have animals at home now who were rescued. They’ve had really hard starts to life and now they’re therapy animals who share love with people all over the world. I really respect animals and think they’re really complex, feeling beings that we’re only just starting to understand. It’s my goal to understand that and be a microphone for that all over the world!

Valerie-  It’s so correct that you said it’s an incomparable feeling when you go home to an animal and you get all of that love! No matter what mood you’re in, you’re always uplifted after that.

Taylor- I heard a saying once that we “should be the person our dog thinks we are” and I think that’s definitely a goal.

Valerie-  I have a T-shirt that says that!

Taylor- Great! I love it.

Valerie- Could you tell us what Animal-Assisted Therapy is? 

Taylor- Animal-Assisted Therapy is a term that falls within the umbrella term Animal-Assisted Interventions. It’s when a professional is bringing a therapy animal into practice with them to help meet treatment goals. This could be a mental health professional, a physical therapist. There are a lot of different ways that the animal can come in and help achieve those goals but it becomes Animal-Assisted Therapy when there’s measurable outcomes that relate to the interaction that we have with the animal. 

Valerie- What’s the training process like for animals to get registered as therapy animals?

Taylor- It’s an intensive process. For us at Pet Partners, we do not just register a therapy animal, we register a therapy animal team. We believe that the competency of the person is just as important as the competency of the animal because the person is going to be the one who is protecting that animal throughout the process. So if you have an animal that’s going to be a good fit, the first thing we look at is whether it’s a type of animal that’s going to actually enjoy and not just tolerate this interaction. Do they really like to be around new people? 

If that’s the case, the first step is that the human is going to take a course, we have an online course that’s available. Then once they pass that course, they can take an in-person evaluation with their animal. At that point, we’re testing fort basic obedience queues, how they’re going to respond to medical equipment, loud noises. They’re allowed to have responses, of course. We’re not looking for robots but we’re looking for whether they can recover and are still competent and happy. Therapy animals in our organization re-evaluate every two years. We know animals age much more quickly than we do so we like to make sure we’re checking in and ensuring that it’s a good fit for an animal throughout the lifetime.

Valerie- When we talk about therapy animals, what kind of animals are we talking about? How do we know what animal will have the best interaction with which person?

Taylor- We have nine different species of therapy animals at Pet Partners – dogs, cats, horses, llamas, alpacas, rabbits, guinea pigs, eats, pigs but by and large, our most common therapy animal is a dog. I always fall back on the competencies of the handler. For me, I have so much background in working with dogs that I’m definitely most comfortable interacting with therapy dogs because I can read their body language the best. 

There are different clients that have preferences. We find that older adults sometimes seem to have a preference for cats. We see that sometimes our young boys get very excited when we come in with a therapy rat. You can ask for the preferences of the people you’re visiting but really, it comes down to the animal that you’d be most comfortable working with and that’s an animal who’s going to be confident, affiliative – meaning they seek out interactions with humans, and they’re ready to listen to you so you have a safe interaction when you’re in the public. 

Valerie- What interactions do the animals have with people during Therapy? 

Taylor- That can vary depending on the treatment goals. When I was in a session with my client, they would sometimes help model healthy relationships. We would talk about how you can build trust with my therapy animals by giving them training cues or getting to know their preferences, and the same thing goes with interactions with people. You can even do physical activities- I had one activity that I did with young people. They had a ball that they could throw to play fetch with my animal and on the ball, there were maybe ten different feeling words- sad, happy, excited, and as the animal would bring the ball back to the child, they would read the word that was facing them and have to tell me about a time in their life when they were feeling those emotions. So they’re accessing these memories and emotions but in a really safe, playful way. So it really depends on the animal and on the goals of the professional but it can fit into any intervention that the professional has, as long as you’re creative and you’re committed to honoring the welfare of the animal all throughout. 

Valerie- That’s interesting! What does a typical session look like? More importantly, how comfortable does one have to be with the animal?

Taylor- The session will be different each time. When I was doing a fifty minute session, I tend to find that a client would come in, greet my animal, and sometimes we would spend time with the animal just sitting on their lap, as we talk. Sometimes, they would do about ten or fifteen minutes of training activities with them. It depends on the energy level and the preferences of the client. In order to work with a therapy animal though, you should be highly familiar with that animal. At Pet Partners, we have a rule that an animal cannot become a therapy animal until they’re a year old and the handler has had to know that animal for at least six months. We think you should have a well developed relationship with these animals so that you can read their body language, advocate for them and they’re really a partner with you in what you do, not just an accessory. 

Valerie- Supposing someone’s going to psychotherapy, when do they try something like Animal-Assisted Therapy?

Taylor- They can try it at any point in their treatment if it’s something they’re interested in and if they can find a practitioner who has a therapy animal. We consider a person to be a good candidate for this if they don’t have any fears or phobias or allergies of animals. We also like to encourage professionals to set their clients up for success by having the initial session to be one in which you just talk about how you’re going to interact with the animal instead of expectations, before having that hands-on experiences when it can become really exciting and a hard time to learn about how to interact with the animals when the animal is there. It can really fit into any time and treatment. We have animals who are with clients all throughout their process of healing, sometimes they come in every now and then as just a special treat. It’s a really flexible intervention, which is one of my favorite things about it.

Valerie- When you were talking to us earlier, you told us about how having an animal can uplift your mood and just help through the healing process. How is Animal-Assisted Therapy different from psychotherapy when it comes to sessions, in terms of the mental health impact that it has? Can you talk us through the process of healing that you were telling us about, with animals?

Taylor- Any time a therapist is going to work with an animal, there needs to be this core set of competencies. The animal is not a magic solution that brings about healing. They’re joining sides with a very skilled professional, who can meet their treatment outcomes with or without the animal. With that being said though, the animal can be a really meaningful aid. One of the things that people talk about is the idea of relationship-building, that animals assist in that and building trust between the client and the therapist. 

There are also just creative ways that you can access new things when you have an animal in the session. I’m thinking two times when we have topics that are really hard to teach young people. We would talk about consent and appropriate touch, which are hard things to communicate to a child, sometimes but when you’re modelling it on an animal like for example, I have a therapy animal named Lucy. I would tell clients that Lucy likes to be pet behind her ear and she doesn’t like to be pet so much on her stomach and so because that’s her preference, that’s something we should follow. Do you have preferences? What’s appropriate for you? So they can really model ways to set boundaries in a non-threatening way while working with the therapy animal.

Valerie- It’s so interesting that you said you can use these animals to explain things to people in a way that’s not threatening and not something that would be a confrontational conversation that would be difficult to talk about if you were doing it directly.

Taylor- Yes, exactly. You can really do a lot of perspective taking activities with animals. I would often work with children who had a hard time taking the perspective of other people but they could learn to do that with my animals. I would say that when you come into the room, it’s important not to get in Lucy’s face and be too excited because that can be overwhelming for her even though she loves you, so think about how you’re being received. Then we can put that into human context – when you walk into your classroom and behave a certain way, how might it be received by the other people in your class?

Valerie- Right. Taylor, what age groups have you found Animal-Assisted Therapy to work best with?

Taylor- Animal-Assisted Therapy can be successful across all areas of the lifespan. There’s research and anecdotal evidence to back that up. Very young children can benefit from therapy animals, and even all the way up to people with severe dementia. We even have therapy animals who assist in cases of hospice, when it’s an end of life situation. You will want to think about the size of the animal and if there are any mobility issues that will impact a person’s ability to safely interact with different sized animals but really, it’s an intervention that can be safely implemented across the lifespan.

Valerie- Okay. We’ve heard that Pet Partners is soon launching an association for professionals who aim to bring therapy animals into their work. What are your views on this? What has your experience with Animal Assisted Intervention in a professional space been like? 

Taylor- I’m very very excited about this development. For a long time, Pet Partners has focused on serving volunteers who bring therapy animals into places like hospitals, schools and nursing homes, at least in the United States. We get calls from more and more professionals across many different fields who have heard about this intervention and would like to bring a therapy animal into their practice but they don’t know how to get started. That’s what our professional association is going to help with. 

We’re going to provide that roadmap, we’re going to provide education, opportunities to connect with other professionals through an online community, we are also going to have a certification evaluation so that a professional can show that they have competencies in this area. We see this as the next step that the field really needs. At the end of almost every research paper on Animal-Assisted Therapy, you see that there’s a call for more standardization and more professionalization within the field, and that’s what we’re going to be doing through the launch of this professional association.

Valerie- That’s really interesting, Taylor!

Taylor- Yes, we’re excited. We hope to have many of the listeners today join us. It should be launching in January of 2022 and you can visit petpartners.org to sign up for a newsletter that will keep you up to date on all of our advancements in this phase. 

Valerie- Sure, thank you for giving us that information. Thank you for talking to us today about Animal-Assisted Therapy because there is so much we got to learn from you. I have a dog at home and I know just how good you can feel when you have an animal waiting for you every single time you come back regardless of how you’re feeling. You’ve also talked to us about how you can use animals to model relationships, you can mirror the feeling of trust and having a safe space in your relationships with people as well, and it gives you a sense of motivation and upliftment. Thank you for talking to us and sharing all of this information with us. It’s definitely been a very very interesting conversation.

Taylor- Absolutely. It’s my pleasure and I hope that everyone who’s listening is motivated to think about the lessons that we learn from animals, whether it be pets or therapy animals, and how we can use those lessons to make the world a better place. 
Valerie- Thank you.

LonePack Conversations – The Alternative Therapy Series: Play Therapy ft. Anya Reddy

When asked to think about the significance of playing, we probably think of it as a way to help us with creative thinking, expelling our energy and social interaction. Let’s dig a little deeper on that thought today as we talk about Play Therapy.

Also follow us on:
Apple Podcasts

Valerie- Welcome to LonePack Conversations! I’m Valerie.

Today we’re talking to Anya Reddy, a Play Therapy practitioner. She is a child and adolescent psychologist who uses play as a language to help children enhance their social, emotional and behavioral skills.

Welcome, Anya!

Anya- Hi, Valerie.

Valerie-  Thank you for being here. Let’s start with you telling us how playing impacts our mental health.

Anya- Wow, well we could start with children or adults but actually to be honest with you, play is something that all mammals engage in. It starts out as our way of discovering the world, of discovering ourselves, our bodies, the things around us. As children, it’s how we develop friendships, relationships, it’s how we strengthen our bond with our parents and it’s how we foster friendships, how we discover empathy, how to share, argue and make up. As adults, it transforms. Some could say that play matures a bit, it could become teasing, flirting, it could become more organized in terms of sport. When we engage in play regardless of age, it leads to a lot of happy hormones in our body – you have oxytocin that’s releasing, it helps reduce your serotonin levels, that’s your stress. Play inherently makes your body happy.

Valerie- Right. Anya, can you tell us what Play Therapy is? How is it different from playing generally?

Anya- In Play Therapy, you have a trained licensed Play therapist who’s using play as a language to help you help yourself. The difference is that in Play Therapy, play isn’t the focus. In fact, we disregard the materials that we have because we know that the therapist is the most important tool and toy in the room. We’re using play as a language but we’re focusing on the client-therapist relationship. 

When you ask how it’s different from playing generally – when we play, there’s no goal to play whereas in Play Therapy, we have our goals. We know what we want to achieve. The child is not coming in just to play with building blocks. The way that the Play therapist holds the space, is watching the child, engaging with the child, the minimal number of rules that we have and the fact that it’s only once a week for 40 minutes, it’s very structured. Going in, even the child knows because there’s an energy in the room and the therapist is picking up on body language, energy, communication, and eye-connection. So there’s a lot that’s going on.

Valerie- Right. Anya, you were telling us that playing can help with a lot of things. It helps when it comes to discovering the world and ourselves, and getting to know ourselves better. What got you interested in providing Play Therapy professionally?

Anya- I have never been a big believer in Talk Therapy, for children especially but adults as well. I wanted to use creative methods, more artistic with movement, storytelling or mindfulness, just different techniques that would access the human subconscious. I feel like we are all able to heal ourselves and that humans are capable of responsible freedom. No one knows one’s inner world better than themselves, nobody else can tell you what you need. I am a big fan of clients being able to take charge of their own healing. So I feel like using creative methods like play allows for that. I wanted to give children the chance to blossom into human beings, not just children. 

I feel like children are infantilized. They’re almost treated as though they don’t know anything, they’re not given enough information, and are dumbed down. Then all of a sudden they’re expected to be able to handle a lot of things. We need to treat children also with respect, autonomy, dignity and just recognition for the fact that they’re also human beings who are actually very aware. A child’s intuition is much sharper than most adults’ intuition. Play Therapy allowed me to integrate creative techniques and an approach where I would be able to meet a child as a human being instead of a child as a child. I was working with a client and it had nothing to do with age. That said, you can also use Play Therapy with adults. 

Valerie- Why don’t you tell us about that? When we were talking about the impact of playing on our mental health, you did mention that it works on children and adults, and right now you did say that Play Therapy is not just for children. Why don’t you tell us more about that?

Anya- When you’re working with adults, Play Therapy is great in terms of healing the inner child. With a lot of adults, you’ll see unresolved issues, maybe a certain conditioning that’s happened, certain scars they never truly had the chance or space to fully heal, and some scars can take years to heal from. 

There’s also how you carry your childhood trauma, not only to your adult relationships at home or at work, but also into your own parenting and how it affects your parenting choices, how it affects how you feel about yourself as a parent and whether you trust yourself as a parent. I’m a big fan of using not only Play Therapy with parents but different techniques of helping parents become aware of who they’re becoming as parents, with the choices they’re making and whether they’re conscious, informed choices. 

Beyond just parents, Play Therapy is a wonderful way of connecting with the inner child, holding and recognizing how it’s important. You carry the experiences, memories, the things you learnt and regretted into who you become as an adult and along the way, we seem to drop the child in us. I feel like it’s important for us to take time out to recognize the child in us, asking ourselves what this child means, how can I help this child? After a point, you can’t really go back to your parents talking about what they did and what you need from them because they may not be able to give it to you, they may not be around. Everybody has their limitations. It’s also taking charge of your own needs and discovering that you can give yourself what you felt you were denied or what you need now. Healing the inner child allows adults to return to themselves in a way that’s empowering and sort of like holding your whole self.

Valerie- Anya, it’s so beautiful that you said you believe people are capable of helping themselves and you just need to be assisted to reach there. When you talk about Play Therapy for adults, you talk about connecting with your inner child, connecting with things that you may have left unresolved or things that you are in conflict with and this just maybe takes you back to the time that things happened and try and get them resolved and make peace with things, and that is such a beautiful thing and such an important thing for people to move on in their lives.

Anya- Right.

Valerie- Can you tell us what a Play therapy session would look like?

Anya- The beautiful thing about each Play therapy session is that they’re each so different. I have this one client, Marissa, who comes in once a week, the way she engages with the toys in the room on the surface seems the same every week but it’s the little things, and a therapist would notice how her body language has changed, whether she’s sharing her artwork with me, whether her body has turned away from me or whether she’s open to sharing space with me. I could also have a client who’s engaging with me but I have also had clients who have almost refused to engage with me. I once spent 40 minutes with a client, it was his first session, and there were no words. He just engaged in movement. It was just a lot of flapping of the arms and different moving of the body. 

So how does a typical Play therapy session look like? Well, the client knows what their boundaries are – basically keeping ourselves safe, each other safe and everything  in the room safe. If they tell me that they have hurt themselves or someone wants to hurt them, then I have to end the session and tell them in advance that I’m ending the session only because I need to keep you safe and this is something that we need to prioritize right now, and I have to tell your parent or your guardian, not to punish you but just to make sure that we can keep you safe. We have to prioritize a client’s safety before we can really even delve into the subconscious and the unconscious. It’s going to be difficult to access healing if you’re physically or mentally unsafe. 

A client comes in and they have the sand tray, they have movement, they have music, art, storytelling, mindfulness. They have a bunch of different corners and materials that they can access and work with during a session. It’s completely self-directed, meaning the client chooses what they want to do. So today they might want to do art and then next week they might want to do sand and the week after that they might do a story, and three weeks later suddenly they might want to return to the story because they’ve processed it and something finally resonates so they feel like they can finally talk about it, that there’s just something that they want to return to about that story. 

So it’s totally unpredictable in a sense, but only in a tangible sense. I suppose in the more intangible sense, I know where a client is coming from and I know where we are going, and there is a growth that I can see happening but then as a therapist, I always have to be careful that I’m not coming from a space of “I know what’s best for the client”, “I know what the client needs”, “I know how to do this”. It’s like holding clay. I’m just holding the clay and watching it as it moulds itself. 

A Play therapy session can be a client that’s throwing a ball from one wall to the other, it can be a client who doesn’t want to talk to me at all, it can be a client who just wants to sit on my lap but then we have to talk about whether that’s safe or unsafe. Then you also have to take into consideration where a child is coming from. Is this a child who has experienced bad touch? How willing am I to allow the child to use my body as a canvas to experience what good touch is? Because how can a child know bad touch from good touch if the child’s never had the chance to experience good touch? You provide a space to experience trust and affection and safety in someone whom they feel like they can experience those things with. It’s a beautiful spectrum.

Valerie- You’ve spoken to us about such a serious topic while giving us this answer. You told us that it doesn’t only delve into the kind of tools they’re playing with and trying to understand them through that but you also have to teach them so much because at the end of the day, they are children and unless they know the difference between good and bad, there’s no way for them to them to understand if something that’s happening to them is right or wrong.

How do you reach out to your clients, these children? You said some of them don’t talk to you for the entire 40 minute session. How do you reach out to them and break that wall?

Anya- Play is a child’s language and toys are their words. There’s so much therapy that’s happening even if a child isn’t playing because they are invited into a play room and they’re invited to play but they don’t have to. It’s completely their space, it’s their rules. They can say what they want, they can do what they want. What a therapist does if a child doesn’t want to engage, or even is engaging, is I hold the space. I mean that I have my eyes around them continuously for 40 minutes, I am mirroring their movement, I am completely attuned to them. When I say attunement, I mean I’m attuned to their energy, their body language, the inflection in their voices, the kind of stories they’re weaving with their toys, it’s like I’m hearing a client in more ways than one. There’s a lot of body language that’s communicated, it’s far more than words, it’s far more than play. I’m completely attuned to the sense of being like a client’s canvas. Even if they’re building a story in a sand tray, I am carrying the energy that a child leaves in a room. 

I think so much of working with children and teaching children happens in a way when you’re not really trying to. It’s sort of like you’re holding sand in your hand and you’re allowing it to do what you feel like it needs to do. You know how to keep the child safe, maybe you’re teaching the child boundaries to an extent but most of it is demonstration, and I think the biggest tool is actually empathy. When I said attunement and listening to the child in more ways than one, what it is, is empathy. I’m listening to how it feels to be in that sitting position, how it feels to jump up in a standing position, how it feels to turn your body away from me during a session and to slowly look over your shoulder at me. I’ve had that with clients. There’s just so much deep empathy in the sense that I’m almost embodying what the client is going through and that’s the deepest level of empathy and there’s no other deeper way to connect to anybody.

Valerie- Anya, thank you so much for talking to us today. For explaining to us what Play Therapy is. We’ve learnt so much from you apart from just the topic of Play Therapy. We’ve learnt that you discover the world, you discover yourselves, you discover empathy and sharing when you’re a child but when you grow into adulthood, the importance of Play Therapy could also be recognizing and nurturing the child in you and that playing can just make your body happy! What’ve we’ve learnt from you is also your personal experience, your passion to integrate creative techniques, not just talk therapy but you go on to talk about playing, art, so many other alternative means of therapy, and you interact with your clients, work on a relationship with that client so that you understand them better and most importantly, you empathize with them. As you said, that’s probably the best way to connect with somebody. Thank you so much for talking to us about Play Therapy.

Anya- My pleasure! I’m always happy to talk about it. Thanks for having me again, Valerie. 

Valerie- Thank you.

LonePack Conversations – The Alternative Therapy Series: Writing Therapy ft. Courtney Ackerman

There’s a quote by Anne Frank that goes “I can shake off everything as I write; my sorrows disappear, my courage is reborn.”

Also follow us on:
Apple Podcasts

Valerie-  Welcome to LonePack Conversations! I’m Valerie.

Today we’re discussing Writing Therapy with Courtney Ackerman, a researcher, the author of three published books on positive psychology-related topics, and a regular contributor to the Positive Psychology program. In her independent work, she mostly focuses on compassion, well-being, and survey research.

Hey, Courtney!

Courtney- Hi, Valerie. Thank you so much for having me.

Valerie- Thank you. Why don’t you start by telling us how writing has an impact on our mental health?

Courtney- Absolutely. It’s a big question because there are tons of positive impacts of writing on our health. Not only do we sort of get to know ourselves better but we get to understand the world around us and other people better. When we start to write down our thoughts and feelings, it helps us process them, get a hold of them and work through them in a way that we normally don’t, if we don’t write it down or discuss them or investigate them with curiosity. Writing can help with a ton of different things. 

Just a few of the research findings have shown that it leads to better health outcomes in terms of lower blood pressure, improvement in lung function, reductions in symptoms in all different kinds of illness, better immune system functioning, even improvements in things like anxiety and depression and substance abuse, eating disorders and post traumatic stress. On top of all that, it gives you those really great insights about yourself, it helps you get shifts in your perspective that can help you interact with yourself and with the world around you, which can result in better relationships, both with yourself and with the people around you. It might be quicker to answer “What doesn’t writing help you with?”!

Valerie-  Right. Could you tell us what Writing Therapy is and how it compares to conventional Psychotherapy?

Courtney- Writing Therapy is just another form of therapy. Just like all the other forms, it’s something that’s focused on the client’s mental and emotional well-being. It’s focused on healing and so it’s got the same usual goals of improving the client’s functioning and helping them with their problems and helping them feel better. It’s sort of a typical working relationship between the client and the therapist but the difference with Writing Therapy is that it’s very focused on journaling, on writing. 

It’s sometimes also called “Expressive Disclosure” or “Expressive Writing”, which I really like because it focuses on what you’re doing, when you’re doing Writing Therapy, and that’s not just writing anything but you’re writing expressively. You’re expressing yourself, you’re diving into things that are difficult or things that are going on in your head. It allows you to express and exercise those negative emotions to get things off your chest. Just that act of writing down your thoughts and feelings can help you process them in a much simpler and more straightforward way. It helps you to identify what it is that’s wrong so that you can then work on it with a qualified mental health professional.

Valerie- When you were telling us about this, you did mention that Writing Therapy is all about expressing your thoughts through the way you write and gaining a better insight on your surroundings. Is there a significant difference between Writing Therapy and journaling?

Courtney- There is a difference. They are very related and of course one can complement the other but there are a few major differences between Writing Therapy and journaling. The first one is that Writing Therapy is led by a licensed mental health professional so you can do all the journaling you like on your own and that can be really great but Writing Therapy in particular is when that process is guided by someone who has been trained and is licensed in this arena and can help you with exercises and prompts and ideas and can help you work through the things that you’ve written down, so there’s that component that’s different. 

Another difference between Writing Therapy and journaling is that journaling is usually sort of off the cuff. You write about what happened in your day and what you’re feeling. Therapeutic writing is more directed- it’s usually guided by prompts or exercises. It;s not necessarily free-form where you write about whatever you’d like. It’s more guided. Third, journaling is more about what happened in your day and how you’re feeling about that while Writing Therapy is actually engaging with your thoughts and feelings. Not necessarily recording them or responding to events that are happening in your life but actually diving deep, thinking about and analysing your own thoughts and feelings. It’s this sort of meta activity where you’re thinking about thinking and you’re feeling about feeling, and you’re really diving in on a deeper level than most people usually do when they journal. 

Valerie-  Right. So journaling would basically be an outlet to your thoughts and a way for you to express yourself through that whereas Writing Therapy might be engaging with your thoughts and analysing it and trying to understand what you feel. Is that right?

Courtney- Right, exactly. You can journal however you like so usually some people would journal in this way but generally, people just sort of journal writing about what happened in their day, what they think about it, what they’re looking forward to. Writing Therapy would be more like – this thing happened, these are the thoughts that occurred after, this is why I think I’m having these thoughts, this is what I feel about having these thoughts, it’s just sort of peeling back a layer, getting a little bit deeper into engaging with those thoughts and those feelings that you’re having. 

Valerie- Courtney, what got you interested in writing and journaling, and authoring three published books?

Courtney- You know, actually that number is upto five! My fifth came out in December. Clearly I’m a fan of writing, I like writing a lot. I’ve actually always really liked writing but for a long time, I never really did it regularly and I never really sat down with an intention for myself. Of course you sit down with an intention to write papers and to write books or articles but I never really sat down and wrote with an intention for myself, just sort of writing for me. When I discovered that this is sort of a way of doing things and that there are a lot of Writing Therapy exercises and things you can do in that arena, it really resonated with me. It helped me let go of these things that I was holding down to, things that are frustrating or difficult or negative, the things that can weigh you down. I found that writing them down was the best way for me personally, to let them go. 

For me, journaling is an excellent way to relieve stress, an excellent way to get those thoughts and feelings down, to let go of the more negative or unpleasant ones, or to sort of record the more positive ones. I don’t just journal about the negatives, I also jurnal about what’s going right, what’s great in my life, what I’m grateful for. It makes it feel more real when it’s down on paper. It’s such an excellent way of dealing with your thoughts and feelings. When it’s in your head, it’s all a big jumble. When you write it down, things can start to make a lot more sense. One of my favourite things about journaling as a mental health activity is that there are virtually no barriers to entry. If you can write, you can have a direct active role in your own healing. You don’t need anything else. If you have paper and a pen, you can journal!

Valerie- It’s so wonderful that you found writing to be a way for you to let go of things that you’ve been holding onto and the things that have been weighing you down, and you took that personal experience, knowing that it works for you, to write books to help people as well. You wrote books on positive psychology and I think that’s wonderful, taking an experience and using it to help people. 

Courtney- Thank you. When you find something that works for you, you want to share it with people. That’s my goal. If even one person finds my books and enjoys the exercises or the techniques in there or finds them useful, then it was totally worth it. I’m a helper! I like to help people So whenever I find something that really works for me, I wonder who else this could work for, I wonder who else this could help, and I try to find a way to get it down on paper and get it out to people.

Valerie- You did mention when you talked about Writing Therapy, that it’s something that’s usually prompted. It’s not free form writing. What I wanted to ask you is that are there different types of writing practices under therapy that help give an outlet to one’s emotions or what they’re feeling? 

Courtney- Absolutely. There are a lot of different techniques and you’d sort of have to dive into the different exercises and prompts and techniques out there in Writing Therapy but some of the main ones are writing about traumatic or stressful events. That’s used a lot for people with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder or any kind of reaction to a stressful event. It doesn’t necessarily need to be diagnosed PTSD to help you deal with stress but that’s one of the most common things that you’ll find. You’ll be guided to write about the stressful or traumatic experience that you suffered, and kind of work through it, process through it, work with a qualified mental health professional to process it, and it can help make the whole experience a little bit less salient, a little bit less impactful on you today. The more that you go through it and write about it in a safe space, the less impact it has on your day to day life. So that’s a pretty common exercise for people in Writing Therapy. 

There are tons of different techniques to follow thoughts, deconstruct them. Say you’re dealing with low self-esteem and you’re not feeling great about yourself. Writing Therapy might help you figure out one particular reason that you’re not feeling good about yourself. Maybe feeling like “I’m not successful”. Then it’ll help you walk back from that thought, all the way to the core. So you’ll start with “I’m not successful”, and then you’ll ask “Why does that matter?” Then you’ll walk back to thinking “There’s this rule that you must be successful to be happy.” Then you’ll ask yourself, “Well, do you really need to be successful to be happy?” And so it’s this step by step process where you’re following a thought or a feeling all the way back to a core belief and then figuring out whether you like that core belief. Whether that’s something that you want to hold onto, whether it’s helping you or hurting you, and if it’s hurting you then create a new one in its place. Instead of “You must be successful to be happy”, it can be “I deserve to be happy now, whether I’m successful or not”.

Valerie- That’s actually really interesting, that you would work backwards from something as simple as a sentence and then you’d use that to introspect and see whether what’s being said in the world is something that you actually believe or whether it’s something that works for you. It’s such a beautiful way that something can help you. You start with something so small and you can end up in learning so much about yourself.

Courtney- Absolutely. That’s why I love it too. It gives you tools to really dive in because we all have these core beliefs but if you ask someone on the street what their core beliefs are, they’re probably not going to be able to say much. When you sit with your thoughts and write them down, and ask yourself questions and introspect, this stuff comes up. There’s pretty much nobody out there that has a set of beliefs that have completely been analysed or agreed with, without any issues. We all have those core beliefs we are unsure of, that come from our parents or society, that maybe we don’t like or believe anymore and you don’t really think about those core beliefs until you start writing them down and engaging with them.

Valerie- True. Courtney, what’s a simple way to get started? Does one need to have a flair for writing to try out Writing Therapy or journaling?

Courtney- Absolute not! You do not need to be a writer to write in a journal. Like I said earlier, one of my favorite things about journaling and Writing Therapy is that you don’t need anything in particular. You don’t need any skills. As long as you can write, you can engage in this kind of stuff. It’s best to engage with a professional if you want to do actual directed Writing Therapy but there are definitely tons of steps that you can take on your own and a lot of my books are focused on that. There are exercises that you can do on your own, at home or at work or wherever you are, and just dive into this stuff. There’s one easy acronym that I really like, to get started and it’s the WRITE method, that comes from Cathleen Adams at the Centre for Journal Therapy. She’s brilliant, you should go check out that website if you want to know more. As an easy way to get started, think WRITE:

W – What do you want to write about? Name it, label it. Give it a name. 

R- Review or reflect on it. Write it down and just think about it, toss it around, feel it out. Reflect on this thing that you want to write about.

I – Investigate your thoughts and feelings. You start writing and you just keep writing, and approach it with curiosity. Approach it as if you’re a researcher, researching your own thoughts and feelings. Get curious and ask questions and keep writing. 

T – Timer. Use a timer, set it from anywhere between two minutes to thirty minutes, and then just keep writing until the timer goes off. Usually people think that ten minutes is a lot and before they know it, the time is gone!

E – Exit the journaling session by re-reading what you’ve written after that timer goes off and then just reflect on it with one or two sentences. You may reflect on it by saying “Wow! I had a lot more to write about than I thought. It’s interesting that this came up”. Just closing it out by looking at what you’ve written and giving it a little summary.

Valerie- It’s so nice that you said that at the end of it, after you start writing and you reflect on it and you set a timer and you keep writing, at the end of it you sit down and reflect on what you’ve written, you see what you can take away from it. You don’t just write and let it be, it’s a way of understanding yourself better so you sit with it, you understand what you’ve written and where you can go from there. I think that’s such a good thing to do and such a good thing to put into practice. 

Courtney- Right. I totally agree. Usually when we journal, we don’t usually re-read what we’ve written. We kind of journal, close the book and put it away and maybe open it the next day and journal again, which is great but taking that time to review it at the end and to really think about it, that’s what takes it to a next level.

Valerie- Makes sense. Courtney, thank you so much for talking to us today about Writing Therapy. We’ve learnt so much from you and gained a better insight into what Writing Therapy is. We’ve learnt that we get to know ourselves better, we get to know the world around us better, and we can just sit and engage with our thoughts and express ourselves in a way that whatever we feel in weighing us down or something we’re holding onto, we can exercise releasing those negative emotions. Thank you for letting us know that and for the work you do when it comes to writing and psychology and positivity.

Courtney- Thank you! And you’re welcome. I’m happy to do it. I’m happy that people are engaging with these subjects. It’s really exciting.

Valerie- Thank you so much. 

LonePack Conversations- The Alternative Therapy Series: Bibliotherapy ft. Bijal Shah

While reading a book or a quote, have you ever felt like it best put into words exactly what you’re feeling? That’s the power of literature – it offers us a connection and intimacy that is unique to the medium.

Also follow us on:
Apple Podcasts

Valerie – Welcome to LonePack Conversations! I’m Valerie.

Today we’ll be exploring bibliotherapy with Bijal Shah, a bibliotherapist, counsellor, author and poet. She is the founder of Book Therapy – a book curation service that offers bibliotherapy, literary curation, personalized reading services and bibliotherapy training. 

Hey, Bijal!

Bijal – Hey, Valerie. How are you?

Valerie –  I’m doing well. It’s so great to be talking to you today.

Bijal –  Thank you, it’s such a pleasure to be here!

Valerie –  Could you tell us how reading books helps with mental wellness? 

Bijal –  Sure. I often see literature as a mirror, as a tool that reflects what we’re feeling because when we read, we read through our own lens. We filter things out through our own experiences. It’s a great self awareness tool and I’d say that the power lies in the relationship that’s formed between a reader and writing, whether that’s narrative or poetry or essay, and the reflections of the thoughts, feelings or observations that the writing provokes. I always suggest a daily journaling practice, capturing exactly what the literature is bringing out for us, so you’re using books as a prompt and that can be used as a self-care structure to you or it can be in your counselling or psychotherapy sessions or whichever mental health professional you’re working with. Books can really help facilitate any sort of mental health struggle that you’re going through, help you process your feelings, find coping strategies and just help to process emotions and release those because that’s so important that reading should help express, and books essentially act as a medium for that. 

Valerie –  When you were talking about this, you told us that one aspect of reading that stands out is that you’re reading through your own lens – it’s your narrative and about what you pick up from a book that you’re reading. You talk about journaling, you talk about how you prefer that someone journals or take the help of a mental health counselor, while reading.

Taking up on that, what is Bibliotherapy? How does it work as an alternative form of mental health therapy? 

Bijal – Sure. Here at Book Therapy, we pretty much define Bibliotherapy as a form of Art Therapy that focuses on the power of stories to heal, so really leveraging off literature to process emotions, using it as a prompt for self-awareness and connection. The basis of Bibliotherapy is essentially two-fold: It focuses on the ability of the Bibliotherapist or mental health professional to prescribe the right text for each individual as there’s no size that fits all, so it depends on the reader’s personal preference. It’s also imperative that the reader is willing to explore the value of literary thinking and seeking meaning within the literary language through self-reflection and journaling and/or discussion with a trained therapist or counsellor. 

In terms of the actual Bibliotherapy process, there are essentially three stages to it – 

The first stage is that the reader should identify and connect with the text or the character, if it’s fiction. The text itself needs to help the reader connect with the emotions and allow them to process it. This is what I call a cathartic response. Also, literature should provide insight into the individual’s own situation based on the issues faced by the character or discussed in the text. Thirdly, allow the reader to consolidate their learnings and lessons in a therapeutic fashion. I would say that those are the three stages of Bibliotherapy and you could use those as self-prescription or in a session with a counsellor or therapist. 

Sessions span both fictional and non-fictional literature, across a variety of mediums. You could read novels or poetry or tragedies or essays – all of these things connect with us in different ways and the actual magic happens in that process of reading and the interpretation and reflection because it’s all being framed from the perspective of the reader and this is where you start to work with what the literature is bringing up for them. 

Valerie –  Bijal, you were telling us about the magic of literature. What’s your relationship with books like? 

Bijal –  I grew up in Nairobi, Kenya so I spent a lot of my childhood and teenage years there and there was only one community library or book store but I found myself hanging out there a lot. I’ve always found it a source of comfort and solace. Living in Nairobi was very much like living in lockdown like we are right now! So in terms of entertainment, there’s not a lot and you find yourself doing a lot of reading the whole time. I’ve always found books very comforting and healing, and I never really picked up on the concept of Bibliotherapy until I was in my own counselling training and I had to see a therapist as a part of that. These were weekly sessions and I found that in between, you might have all sorts of issues or things going on as you’re waiting to see the therapist and it’s in that space in time that I felt like literature really anchored and supported me because I could reflect on what I was feeling. I felt like literature was really allowing me to leverage therapy outside of my therapy sessions. 

Valerie –  What was the inspiration behind founding Book Therapy and making this personalized curation service for people?

Bijal – There’s been a lot of research going on over the years by University students and PhD students and whilst there’s a lot of research, it’s never really hit the mainstream market and lots of counsellors and therapists do prescribe literature as a part of their sessions. What I wanted to do was really focus on Bibliotherapy itself and bring all my learnings together. I really just wanted to bring together everything that we need in terms of techniques and tools to use literature, and that could be like creative writing, unstructured writing.

Reading and writing really go hand-in-hand. You’re reading but you’ve also got to do a bit of reflection and that normally comes from writing. If you’re averse to that then you can record a voice note to yourself! That’s what I call audio journaling and it’s also very important to get those feelings out and express the things that you’re going through and capture them and that is healing in itself. A lot of the work that I do involves reading and then writing. Reading for fun is great but if you want to also use it as a therapeutic tool, then this is how you can make the most out of your reading.

I felt a real urge to bring what I had learnt through my training and my own personal experience with literature to other people and that’s when I actually launched Book Therapy. I found that sometimes you want the Bibliotherapy sessions but sometimes you just want a prescribed reading list so I would also curate reading lists based on what people tell me they’re looking for. I do it for therapy but I also do it for personal interest because I have people telling me they’re avid readers and ask me to prescribe something to them. I now have this feedback loop of what’s working, what’s not and it helps me hopefully tailor something that can be really useful and valuable to my clients.

Valerie –  It’s so nice that you’ve said that when someone’s going through something, you’re providing them a service by prescribing them books that might help them express or understand what they’re going through better. It’s such a great service that you’re doing for people.

Bijal – Thank you! Similar to what LonePack’s doing, it’s creating ways of helping people find ways to cope when they’re going through difficult times. Especially now during the Pandemic, people are really struggling with mental health and sometimes it’s not easy to get access to a counsellor. Sometimes it’s hard to find a counsellor that you connect with. I think we have books and literature that offers us a lot of choice and variety, and it’s still a form of connection. It’s not connection with a person but you’re connecting with something, with a character or with the author, and it’s really satisfying our human need for connection because a lot of issues start when you’re feeling disconnected with either parts of yourself or with others. So it’s really sort of bridging that gap and I always say that it’s a form of meditation, especially if you’re reading mindfully, it’s giving your brain a break, mental space to breathe!

Valerie –  How have you found Bibliotherapy play a role in youth mental health in particular?

Bijal – When I think of youth mental health, there are two branches – there’s children’s Bibliotherapy and then there’s teenage Bibliotherapy, and I think each is quite different. Children’s Bibliotherapy is sometimes more complicated because children are young and they don’t always have a language to express what they’re feeling but picture books and Play Therapy can be hugely helpful in helping children express themselves and also process what they’re going through because children really need us to help them regulate their emotions and they need to learn how to do that. Literature and Play Therapy are such wonderful ways to teach them how to do that. 

During the teenage years, literature is very much a developmental tool so I call it developmental Bibliotherapy where they’re learning about the world through literature because there are so many things that are never really touched upon in class. For example, you might get taught about sex education to know how someone becomes pregnant but you don’t talk about the other things around that like actually exploring your sexuality or your needs. None of that is addressed in a classroom. I think literature can be a way to help you explore your identity, help you explore your sexual needs, beyond just the basic things that you’re told. I really think that developmental Bibliotherapy can really help people with that. Even if it’s cognitive and social development, being assertive, dealing with anxiety, all of these things are actually important lessons for teenagers which are not often focused on, in the academic setting. I think mental health literature is just the perfect bridge. Also, I don’t see many youth going to see counselors whereas I do see lots of people read. Teenage is the time where you actually get to read before you go to University where you just stop reading. We should help teenagers make the most of this time in developmental Bibliotherapy, and that could also include a lot of young-adult literature.

Valerie –  Bijal, you’ve given us an insight into how reading books can impact our mental health. You’ve told us what Bibliotherapy is. Can you now tell us the steps of how one can develop a good reading habit and include literature as a part of one’s self-care?

Bijal – I probably want to leave you with a few things that I think are super helpful. Practice mindful reading. Sure, reading for escapism is fine and there’s a place and space where you need to do that but if you’re reading from a therapeutic perspective, practice mindful reading. Ask questions about what the literature is doing for you, what feelings it’s bringing out, is there something that it’s nudging or prompting? Create an intention habit, a consistent time to read every day. Reading is like going to the gym. If you don’t do it everyday, you’re just going to be a holiday reader. If you want to get out of that holiday reader mode, you have to do it daily and create a space where you do it, like a designated reading space because all of these things bring consistency and consistency helps you build that into your daily routine. I’d also say keep a book journal. Every time you’re reading, write about it. Reflect on what it’s doing for you. I would also say find an accountability partner, a reading partner. Someone you read with or you could be reading the same book at your own time but coming together to discuss it because that is what’s going to get you reading and finishing the book. I’ve found that when you have a reading partner, you’re more likely to be committed to it, similar to a book club. I would say all of those things are great in terms of building better reading habits. 

Valerie – That’s so nice. Bijal, is journaling something you do regularly? In everything that you’ve talked about, when you speak about reading, you always also added the importance of journaling and how it enhances the whole reading process.

Bijal – Absolutely, yes. I do it pretty much every day. I’m always writing something because I love writing! Whether it’s quickly jotting down a poem or writing down how I’m feeling that way or something that I’ve noticed about myself, I will just write that down and that just immediately creates a sense of relief because I feel like I’ve taken it out of myself and I’ve put it on paper. It’s really cathartic and healing, I can’t recommend it enough. 

Valerie – Bijal, thank you so much for talking to us today and giving us an insight into what Bibliotherapy is. We’ve learnt from you that books can be comforting and healing. We’ve learnt that we read books so that we can connect with the text and through the text, we can connect with characters, connect with your own emotions, dig into something and realise and identify things that maybe you were not comfortable with when it comes to your own self. That you can take those learnings and consolidate them. We’ve also learnt that there are different forms of literature that can help us best connect with our emotions. Thank you for the tips that you gave us on how we can use reading personally and develop reading habits in order to take care of ourselves and develop our mental wellbeing. Thank you so much.

Bijal – Thank you, Valerie. It’s been such a pleasure to be here and I do hope that it’s helpful and that it helps somebody in a meaningful way. I think that’s the best reward for this.

Valerie – Thank you, Bijal.

LonePack Conversations- The Alternative Therapy Series: Narrative Therapy ft. David Newman

When you’re asked questions like “What’s your story?”, what’s the first thing that comes to mind? Today let’s take time to realise the importance of the stories we tell ourselves, and others, while talking about our lives.

Also follow us on:
Apple Podcasts

Valerie – Welcome to LonePack Conversations! I’m Valerie.

We’re in conversation with Narrative Therapist, David Newman. He has an independent counselling practice through Sydney Narrative Therapy, works at a psychiatric unit for young people, and is a faculty member of the Adelaide based Dulwich centre, one of the homes of narrative therapy and community work.

Hey, David!

David – Hi, Valerie. It’s nice to be here.

Valerie – Thank you for agreeing to talk to us. Let’s start with you telling us what narrative therapy is and how it relates to and aids our mental health.

David –Well, in short Narrative Therapy is an approach to therapy and community work. It’s something that social workers and psychiatrists and psychologists and nurses will do in their work, when they’re doing counselling work or therapeutic work. But if I just go back just a tiny little bit, Narrative Therapy found some of its understandings through the cognitive revolution and the idea that we are meaning-making and thinking people, the human race, and that one of the ways that we make sense of things or make meaning is through the lens of a narrative, that in order to be able to make sense of things, we need to have the lens and it’s through the lens of a narrative. So that’s where some of the ideas and the impetus of Narrative Therapy came from and these go back in time to probably about the 1950s in terms of what was happening in psychological theory at the time. 

Now Narrative Therapy is an idea that you might say comes from a post-structuralist understanding that is about the plurality of life and about the inconsistencies and the contradictions in life and in identity and one way that that’s taken up in narrative practice is to say that life is always multi-storied, so as a narrative practitioner, we’d always be assuming that someone is not just the problem story, they’re not just a bundle of despair or anxiety or panic, but there’s also other glimpses of life that are outside of those stories and the narrative practitioner is wanting to breathe life into those glimpses, when people aren’t being able to cope or take action in life. 

Life is multi-storied but Narrative Therapy also contextualizes it. Identity is seen as a contextual and social achievement. In other words, we are really interested in looking at what happens around people so you might call it a sociological approach or analysis to the shaping of stories. What that means in terms of Narrative Therapy practices is that broadly speaking, the first thing you might say about Narrative Therapy is that it looks at the context of people’s lives and not the problem with people, so it does what we call “externalizing the problem”. Externalizing the problem is imagining and speaking or writing or drawing, or whatever it might be, as if the problem stories are separate from people. So people are in a relationship to despair, people are in a relationship to a suicidal experience, people are in a  relationship to addiction or conflict, or whatever the problem might be. That’s called externalizing and that’s a big part of the conversation. 

The second thing to say about Narrative Therapy practice would be that when we find an aspect of life outside of the externalised problem story, we really want to ask a lot of questions and be very curious and listen out for stories that can be built on, like stories of coping, stories of skills of living.

Valerie – That’s really interesting. You look at it from a perspective of knowing that life is multi-storied and that you don’t just look at the problems but you try to look at it in context to your life and then try to work around that.

David – Yeah, that’s right.

Valerie –  Personally, what is it that got you interested in narrative therapy?

David – So Narrative Therapy, for me, is not just critique. Narrative Therapy is certainly critique and is responding to some of the politics of psychology and counselling and therapy and community work at the time, in the 80s and late 80s but it wasn’t just critique, it was also practice. So seeing in these ideas a strong engagement with power, a strong engagement with issues of culture and a non-pathologizing stance but there were full of very very elegant practices. Very elegant and very effective practices. So it was both a critique mixed with practice and I was really drawn to that.

The other thing that drew me to Narrative Therapy was that it is very non-individualistic. It was about connecting people and joining people around similar experiences including joining people with their own communities. So therapy or community work wasn’t sort of cut off from life so much, the world of the person was brought into therapeutic process much more than I’d seen in other approaches.

Finally, I was really drawn to the way that Narrative Therapy engaged with personal story, the personal story of the therapist. Around the time in the 70s and 80s, there was quite a lot of pathologizing of what was considered sometimes problematic motive for why people would get engaged with therapy – that they had something often that would be spoken of as an unmet need and in Narrative Therapy, there was an engagement with personal story that would be acknowledging and honoring a personal story as shaping of purposes that you brought to the work – that because you know something about how hard life can get as a therapist, you want to bring that kind of purpose to the work because maybe if you know a little but about what it’s like to have a parent who has an alcohol problem, you’ll bring that determination to do something about it and have skills around what you can do around those experiences, that you can bring to the work. So it’s engaging with their personal story in a way that was acknowledging and honoring, rather than pathologizing and dismissing.

Valerie –  It’s beautiful that would help somebody with their personal problems and personal story in a way that you engage with them as opposed to stigmatizing it, and then you help them through that in a way that you’re also concerned because you can connect it to something from your own personal life.

David – Yeah. So for instance, one practice of Narrative Therapy would be to let people know, let couples or families or individuals know that you have been taken somewhere else in your life as a result of the conversation, you have other ideas for your life as a result of the conversation or as a result of the work. You know that as a result of hearing how determined this person is to listen better to their child, that you will take that with you too in your parenting or something like that. So yes, there are particular practices where we let people know how we’ve been moved somewhere else as a result of the conversation. Typically in Narrative Therapy, this is an aspect of re-telling someone’s story, it’s honoring or acknowledging re-telling a story when we tell them how someone’s story has taken us.

Valerie –  Yes. David, what age groups have you found narrative therapy impact the most and what are the different ways through which people can tell their stories? 

David – I would say that because Narrative Therapy really engages with meaning-making, that’s what it’s interested in and the meaning-making lens as I said earlier, that is privileged in narrative practices is storytelling, I would say anybody at any age can take part in these conversations and in this work. I would say for children who are very young, there might be some limitations in terms of language but I would say even from as young as 3 or 4, I think, children can use language to describe their experience in ways that we can shape a therapeutic conversation of sorts. I think the limitations to the age is not so much the age of someone, it’s the limitations of the workup and the extent to which they’re bringing particular practices and ways of talking that are resonant for the person, they’re a part of the person’s culture, they’re a part of the person’s way of doing things, or style. 

In terms of how stories can be told, I think it can be not just about the spoken word, and quite often therapists will ask people to draw a picture of their worries or a picture of depression. That’s a way that we can engage with meaning-making or some sort of communication. There’s also ways that therapists have been exploring music, and that’s another option. There has been a huge explosion of using metaphors as well in Narrative Therapy, so we bring a metaphor that might be resonant, often the metaphor of the tree of life and how people might use a tree as a metaphor to speak about their lives – the roots are where you’ve come from, etc. and that’s another way that we can tell stories. This is another more recent development over the last ten years of how metaphors are being richly engaged in telling stories as it has lots of advantages including that people can speak indirectly about experiences which can help enormously when people have had a traumatic experience and it’s very hard to speak about it directly.

Valerie – David, can you give us a further insight into what happens in a Narrative Therapy session? How does a narrative therapist understand people and help them through their problems?

David – I think something that’s reasonably common to many approaches to therapy and community work is that the narrative therapist is really interested in the experience of someone. They really want to get a rich sense of the experience of someone. Narrative Therapy is very interested in using and reflecting back the language that someone uses. In fact, Narrative Therapy would take a position against re-wording what someone says and representing it through a professional expert kind of language or psychiatric language. It would be about trying to use the language that people bring. Someone might speak about way out thoughts or dire thoughts as opposed to for instance the psychiatric term that gets imposed sometimes as “suicidal ideation”. 

A Narrative Therapist is listening out for a problem story and how they are being described, and the effects of the problem story. So if someone did speak about dire thoughts, we would be asking about the effects of the dire thoughts, what the dire thoughts might be saying, what gives the dire thoughts power,  the context through which the dire thoughts might be getting a lot of power but we understand, because life is multi-storied, we understand that there are always glimpses of life, often they’re in the shadows of the problem story but there are always glimpses of life outside of the problem story and the narrative therapist is always listening out for those glimpses and trying to take note of them, listening carefully for them. 

So we’re listening for the problem story and we’re listening for glimpses outside of the problem story, which in Narrative Therapy, we call alternative stories or preferred stories, sometimes they’re also referred to as second storis or subjugated stories, and we want to breathe life into those other stories and help them come out of the shadows of the problem story.

Valerie –  Is it possible for people to find their stories through the stories of others’ lives, or while playing a role in someone else’s life?

David – I have been very interested in the idea of people finding their stories through the stories of others’. For the last eight or so years, I’ve been working part time at a psychiatric unit for young people in Sydney, and I do many many groups. In these groups, one thing I’ve noticed is that people will often find their own language and their own experience, when they hear someone else’s experience. I might be doing a round in a group and the opening question might be “What’s something that’s rough for you?”. Someone might say “I really don’t know” and then we’ll go through a few people answering what they think is rough for them and then all of a sudden someone who didn’t know how to describe just how rough things are and how to describe the turmoil will find words for it. They’ll find words because they realise that there’s an overlap of an experience or story with someone else, or the opposite – they’ll know that that story or experience does not speak to them, and in that sense, they’ve got a sense of what does speak to them. They have a sense of a little bit of what their story is

This concept of people finding their stories from the stories of others’, I’ve found incredibly helpful in work because it means I put much less pressure on people to speak because they’ll speak once they hear something either of their own experiences reflected in others or not reflected in others. I also use this very much with the written word. These alternative or preferred stories, in Narrative Therapy, there’s a long tradition of writing down these stories so people can have them when they go, or that they can donate these stories to other people who are going down a similar path. We share these stories later or documents in the group so that people get a sense of their own stories through the stories that have been written down. So that’s one thing that I’ve found very very helpful.

Valerie – David, thank you so much for talking to us about Narrative Therapy. There is so much that we got to learn from you today, getting a better insight into what Narrative Therapy is. We learnt that it’s about meaning making and making sense of things through the lens of a narrative. We learnt that life is always multi-storied and you look at the glimpses of life outside your problems. That is such a beautiful thing, that you connect with experiences, you connect people with experiences and you can also relate to other people’s experiences to form your own narrative and find your story through that. Thank you so much for talking to us about Narrative Therapy today.

David – My pleasure, Valerie. I hope it was of use.

Valerie – Thank you.

LonePack Conversations- The Alternative Therapy Series: Drama Therapy ft. Anshuma Kshetrapal

The ancient Greeks used drama for catharsis. Theater is known to help tap into emotions, build self esteem, and reduce feelings of isolation. Let’s find out how Drama Therapy can aid our mental health.

Also follow us on:
Apple Podcasts

Valerie- Welcome to LonePack Conversations! I’m Valerie.

Today we’re talking to Anshuma Kshetrapal, a Drama and Movement Psychotherapist. She is the founder of The Color of Grey Cells, the co-founder of The Arts Therapists CoLab, and a founding member of the Indian Association of Dance Movement Therapy.

Welcome, Anshuma!

Anshuma- Thank you so much for having me, Valerie.

Valerie- Thank you for being here. Could you start with telling us what Drama Therapy is and how it supports mental wellness?

Anshuma-  Drama therapy, like you said, is ancient in nature. It’s simply put – the idea of creating alternative ways to look at our therapeutic processes. Therapy typically would want you to delve deeper into unconscious elements and the arts are a wonderful way of doing that. The arts perpetually have a way of bringing out our unconscious aspects. So when you pick a pose or when you pick a character to work with or when you pick a story, what guides your motivation to pick those things? We look at that more closely. In a typical session, we would go into role play, enactment, stories, and do all kinds of kooky things to understand what your unconscious self wants to communicate to you. 

Valerie- Right. If someone is seeking conventional psychotherapy, how do they know when they should try drama therapy?

Anshuma- Well, like I said, it’s about the unconscious language. The unconscious mind doesn’t speak to us in Hindi, English or any other language. It speaks to us in emotions. Now when we’re trying to use articulation, there will inevitably be a time when our conscious thought around that experience will run out and we won’t know how to go forward from that moment. A lot of times, clients who come to Drama Therapy come after having had a lot of looping experiences in talk therapy. So then when they come to drama therapy, it’s a way of their unconscious elements speaking. They don’t have to own anything, the beautiful bit of Drama Therapy is that there’s so much distance you can create between you and your emotions that it feels very safe, because all you’re doing is playing. If I don’t have to own my anger but that angry King really wants to behead people, in that way it doesn’t feel threatening to go through these very complex and nuanced emotions.

Valerie-  I know that when you were talking to us earlier, you said that you do a lot of kooky things and you start playing these weird games and stuff like that so how do you know what works best on what person? When somebody comes to you, how do you know what they will resonate with best?

Anshuma-  Well, it’s a very complex issue in terms of there’s no ‘one size fits all’. The idea is that the therapist is trained in how to look at the unconscious elements of what’s going on, and we’re not directive at all. It’s a very indirect form of psychotherapy. We always ask and there’s a lot of power sharing in the room. I’m not your expert, you are the expert on your mental health. You come in, there are a lot of things to choose from. What would you like to explore today? So it’s not led by me and in that sense, what we do is we create something called a ‘play space’, and that play space is an area where the client chooses what they would like to explore. We give a lot of options and it’s a very gentle build-up. It’s not like you come in and we’re like “Let’s do this”. You can talk about things for a long time, we discover what some core areas of work are, and then we explore those certain things using different modalities. From the same concept of anger, I can make a character out of it, I can do some sock puppet out of it, I can do sand play, I can do role enactment, there’s so many things. 

Valerie-  Supposing you’ve got somebody who is very uptight and like you said, they tried psychotherapy and they felt like they were going through a loop that they couldn’t break, even through their words and they come to you for Drama Therapy but they don’t really know what they want to do because they are uptight as a person and they don’t really know how to express themselves. How do therapists understand the issue someone’s trying to express through Drama and how do you make them express it through Drama?

Anshuma- That’s the beauty of it. For me, the more difficult clients to work with are the ones who come wanting a lot of drama because then you have to unlearn. Artists make the most difficult clients because they have a certain idea of how drama should look – interesting, masala to the story, wanting to enact something full-scale. And in creating the product, they forget about the process. Actually, Drama Therapy is very process oriented. It’s not anything to do with “drama” as it looks on the stage. It’s just an inner expression. If you’re just breathing, I’ll just work with you with that. Simple movements like breath. Let’s expand on that. Let’s expand on a small movement. Is there a dialogue that you want to say today? So it becomes very subtle and there’s no pressure on the client to enact or show me big movements. 

When you ask how we help them express, we just use lots of tools and we put across those tools and help them make choices. For example, one of my favourite things to do right in the beginning is that I take a lot of small toys and I put it in front of them and ask them what represents them today, and they just pick up an object and tell me an imaginary story, it doesn’t need to be their life story because I’m not an investigative journalist. I’m just here to make you feel better.

Valerie-  Can you give us a further insight into what happens in a Drama Therapy session?

Anshuma-  A typical Drama Therapy session would begin with you doing some focus exercises, you come in, we do some breathing work. Then we start to warm up the body, we move about a little bit where I ask you to think about the themes you want to explore today, then we start with “bridging in”, which is when you start to build on those themes. 

A session I just had today before this was about somebody who’s been locked in the Pandemic but feeling homeless because they don’t feel at home in their own house. She wanted to explore the concept of home and so we played a little game about what does home mean? And how does home represent itself in her body, and through that we were able to come to the idea of home being a place of nurturance, home being a place of conflict. So our main activity then included her making a safe space in her own home, so she went and got objects that made her feel safe, picked a corner of her room and she created a little sanctuary for herself, and then we bridged out of it, we came back to talking about some of the conflicts that exist in her home, and then she drew about it a little bit saying “I just want to put it out of my body, I’ve been carrying this for too long”. And then we did some songs and just got her back to the present moment. 

Valerie-  It’s actually really interesting that you start with really really small things and you can use that and build it up into something beautiful and help somebody express themselves and understand what they’ve been feeling. 

A – Right? Because it’s not about them performing, it’s about them expressing. That’s a very clear difference we make right in the beginning.

Valerie-  What was it about Drama Therapy that drove you to take it up as a profession? 

Anshuma-  I was a journalist initially and I was doing feature stories and I realised that I think that the impact of the fourth estate wasn’t really cutting it for me. I wanted a very clear one to one ability to be able to make an impact because it felt like I would go there to scoop a story and then come out and not be able to take any responsibility for what happens next. I did a couple of jobs in journalism and I took off nine months and I didn’t have a bachelors in psychology so I studied all of psychology that I could from bachelors and straight away did my first masters in psycho-social clinical studies, beyond which I started to realise that just this idea of talking was not cutting it. 

It felt like there was more to be expressed, especially when we’re talking about impact, if we could express in a group, it becomes even more interesting. So I started studying how group therapy is emerging and it seemed at the time it was only rehab or one to one in India. So I stepped out and studied how the arts are helpful because it helped me in my personal life as well, just to express myself better and tell my story, and so I went and researched that and ended up falling in love with it.  

Valerie-  You said that when you were doing journalism, you felt like you were scooping up stories but not taking responsibility, how do you feel that’s changed for you when you became a psychotherapist?

Anshuma-  I think the idea that I have a feedback loop, that I work with my client over and over again every week and I go back and it feels less exploitative. That’s my personal experience. When I was doing journalism, it felt like it was about the story rather than the individual. And the story does perhaps have a larger impact but at the same time, now when I’m going to this person week after week and seeing how they’re changing and how their lives are enhanced or better, it’s a very different experience of feeling validated with my own work.

Valerie-  Right. Could you talk to us about how the infrastructure and education around Drama Therapy in India has progressed with time?

Anshuma-  Valerie, you’ve asked me a question where I don’t know where to begin but it feels like we’re at a very different place but I’m going to start from when I first came back. My second masters was in Drama and Movement Therapy Sesame from the Royal Central School of Speech and Drama in London, and I had gotten jobs there but I wanted to come back because even though there was more demand there, the need was felt here. It felt like I could perhaps make a difference in the field here and it was new. As soon as I came back, I was fortunate enough to be here at the right time because mental health as a conversation was picking up but till date, I get a lot of skepticism. I get a lot of “Do you make your clients dance?”, “Which hospital is your next performance in?” So because of that, I felt the need to stretch myself into advocacy work because it felt like there’s a larger conversation that we were not having. 

That’s where the Indian Association for Dance Movement Therapy and all the teaching began. Currently I design programs and I approach universities and we set up diploma programs. We set up a diploma program in Pune, there is a diploma program in expressive arts therapy run by my very able colleagues in Mumbai. There are several certification programs which are very ethical in nature. Alongside that, we do have to develop the field in terms of ethics because one of the causes that’s close to my heart is the social justice angle of mental health in India and it feels like there is so much malpractice because there is no licensure. We are looking to develop a code of ethics, we are looking to get licenses into the country at various levels and really try to grow the field from the ground up. 

While I’m involved in infrastructure, I can tell you that from then to now, it is a transformation. We have so many people who are interested, so many practitioners who are doing a lot of ethical work and a lot of clients who are benefitting, but we’re still looking for our government to get involved. The budget this time, for example, for mental health was dismal. It feels like the government will take its own time coming around but at least through platforms like yours, through Instagram, through various social media, people are really invested in this topic now so in that way, it has helped up. Private infrastructure is willing to invest but publicly, we don’t have much support yet.

Valerie-  Yes. It’s great to seeing that despite learning abroad, you can back here because there was a need for awareness, in terms of the fact that people were so uninformed that they had all kinds of preconceived notions about what Drama Therapy or alternative therapy would be, and you’ve actually started curating courses that would help change that and help make people more educated and aware. 

Anshuma- Yeah and yet there are courses that people are just starting in their basements, without trained faculty because they simply think drama and therapy means you feel good after doing drama, but that is precisely where vulnerable clients can really get duked and so do vulnerable students. I always urge the student population to really study the course they’re going for because these are complex and nuanced therapies, even though they come under the purview of alternative therapy, you’re still working with an individual’s mental health and so the responsibility on you is pretty great and these short-term courses in basements may be cheap and they may be able to provide cheap certification but what will your end product be and how far can you go in the field if you go to those kind of courses?

Valerie-  Very true. Being a psychotherapist, you help people deal with problems related to their mental health and it can be a pretty arduous job. As you said, you take on responsibility and while it can be a beautiful thing to see somebody transform, it can also be very very taxing. How do you care for your mental health amidst all of this? 

Anshuma-  Well, I’ve been asked that question during the Pandemic and I’ve wondered about it currently because typically my ways of taking care of myself, and avoiding burnout, which is very frequent in mental health work is to travel and to step away from my familiar surroundings altogether. Since that was not an option during the Pandemic, I’ve had to develop other fundamental things but there are clear guidelines, if you go to your therapist, I urge all clients to ask their therapists if they’re in supervision. Are you in personal work yourself? Because that’s the thing that really keeps us intact. 

I make sure that I take my supervision seriously. Every fortnight, I make sure that I call my supervisor and she adds a third perspective to my work. I have been in personal therapy for the last eleven years and make no qualms in talking about it because it feels like it’s important that my clients also know that I’m also engaged in working with myself. Alongside that, the arts are a wonderful way of self care. I do drama and movement on a daily basis for other people but for myself as well, there’s nothing better for me than to get my hands dirty with some clay or do some atwork, some painting, or even some drama and movement whenever I can.

Valerie-  So what’s your favorite form of art that plays a therapeutic role in your life?

Anshuma-  For me, it’s been clay. There’s that physical element of putting your energy into clay, and what I end up doing is I use the clay to make those little toys that I was talking about earlier. I fashion those toys out of the clay so it becomes my therapeutic activity but it also comes back into the work when I offer those toys as a starting point to my clients. It really is paying for itself in some way!

Valerie-  Anshuma, it’s been absolutely beautiful talking to you. There’s so much we got to learn from you. We got to learn that Drama Therapy is more about the journey and it’s about expressing yourself through what you do as opposed to thinking of it as a performance, we’ve learnt just how important it is for therapists as well to take their mental health seriously, to be in supervision and to let other people know that it’s important for them to take care of their mental health as well. Also, one thing that I can take away from you is that you said that it’s beautiful for you to feel that validation when you see your clients come to you every single time and you can see them healing and becoming better because of your work. Thank you so much for talking to us today and making us aware of what Drama Therapy is and what it means to you as well.

Anshuma- Thank you so much, Valerie, for the opportunity and for all the work you’re doing. Thank you so much for doing this wonderful summary at the end, that way I also learnt from what I was rambling on about. 

Valerie-  Thank you.

LonePack Conversations- The Alternative Therapy Series: Sound Therapy ft. Suzy Nairn

At some point in our lives, a lot of us may have turned to music to make ourselves feel better, but did you know that mere sounds can have an impact on our mental health as well?

Also follow us on:
Apple Podcasts

Valerie- Welcome to LonePack Conversations! I’m Valerie.

Today we’re talking to Suzy Nairn, a singer, sound therapist and educator. She’s the founder of Soundsphere and the co-founder of ANSU School of Sound. She is also a member of the board of the International Therapeutic Sound Association. 

Hey, Suzy!

Suzy-  Hi, hello!

Valerie- It’s good to have you here today.

Suzy-  It’s good to be here. Lovely to be invited, I’m very keen to talk about Sound Therapy and how it can help people.

Valerie- Sure. Suzy, by profession, you are a Sound Therapist. You’re also a singer and a songwriter. What is the difference between sound and music, and between the alternative therapies of the same?

Suzy-  Yes, absolutely. When we’re working with music, we tend to be working a lot with rhythm, melody, lyrics, words, etc. When we’re working in Sound Therapy, we might bring in a little bit of rhythm and melody but actually, it’s a very much more open soundscape so we would use toys or undulating pulses and that can help bring a person into a relaxed state whereas singing and song-writing involves singing and writing songs, people are moving, people are engaged, they’re listening and maybe singing along in their head or tapping their foot. Within a sound journey, they tend to be resting in Sound Therapy. 

So the difference as well between Music Therapy and Sound Therapy is that Music Therapy is much more of a two-way process, so a music therapist would be talking and speaking with a client, where they would be using instruments to help express emotions that someone may not be able to express in words so it’s more of a communication tool whereas Sound Therapy is very much a treatment. The person is lying down, eyes closed, under a cozy blanket, etc. and they are receiving the sound. Although they are listening, they may actually drift off into a dream-like state. They are not required to be actively engaged, so it’s much more like a giving from the Sound Therapy, and the person is receiving it.  

Valerie- Yeah, it is quite interesting to know that on one hand when you have music, it’s something that’s more active, where you have participation from the person and Sound Therapy on the other hand is more on the basis of receiving sound and in terms of that, could you tell us what the therapeutic effects of sound are and how it relates to mental health?

Suzy-  Yes, so continuing on from that, when we were actually consciously working with the brainwave states, in music, our brainwaves are in the natural state of beta, where we’re active and engaged and there’s four main brainwave states that we’re all in at different times throughout the day, the beta state is what we’re in right now, where we’re talking, listening, and engaged whereas when we’re working with Sound Therapy, we’re using sounds and tones and different effects to slow the brainwaves down so that the person reaches a natural state of relaxation and it’s sometimes a state that people can’t reach themselves, especially if they’re worrying or anxious, if they’ve got very over-active minds or constant chronic pain. All of these things make it very difficult for a person to access a state of relaxation. 

What happens is when they are gently lulled into this natural brainwave state which we call the alpha-theta border, which is a bit like the moment when you’re just dropping off to sleep at night or you’ve just woken up and you haven’t really fully got onto your mind and what’s happening in the day, you’re in a sort of unknown physical state, almost. When a person reaches that natural brainwave state, we aim to keep them in that a little bit longer. Normally, it’s a brief moment while we’re there and they’ve shown that when people are in that state, the body actually undergoes their own physical self-repair so it’ll balance hormones, it’ll release tension that’s been held in the physical body, and all of these benefits can help people lessen their worries, help them gain a sense of peace and also which then helps them be more able to cope with life’s challenges, and we’ve seen that it can bring about pain relief in people, they might not need as much pain medication if they’ve got a chronic illness. 

I’ve got clients who have had very high blood pressure and after a number of sessions, that has completely stabilized. So there are all these different effects that are going on. It’s also the sounds and the way we weave these sounds. They also soothe the nervous system, it very much works with the vagus nerve, which is the biggest nerve in the body, and the vagus nerve is connected to our ears and travels all the way down through the body and connects with all the internal organs of the body, so when we’re giving that somebody and they’re receiving it, it’s soothing. It can soothe their frazzled nerves and wash away some of that tension. When people are tense and worried and are holding themselves tight, it helps the body to naturally start to relax and that process in itself can just be so beneficial for people. 

A lot of people say to me, after they’ve had a session, especially after the group ones, that they have a brilliant sleep. It’s amazing, the power of how it can really help people, and it does require skillful playing and that’s why I’m a real advocate for training in Sound Therapy because it’s really easy to just buy the instrument. Just like music, you can teach yourself to a point by watching and listening to other people but there’s actually a whole process of being a therapist, which is not something that you cannot just teach yourself. That is something that needs to be taught because sometimes, people can have really big emotional releases and you need to be able to handle that as a therapist.  Yeah, so there are a lot of ways that it helps people.

Valerie-  Right. Suzy, when you were telling us about this, you did talk about how sound helps release tension and help people reach a point where they relax to a point where they probably couldn’t by themselves and you talked about how it’s important to have a therapist with you so that if there are emotional releases, you have somebody who can help facilitate that. Is talk therapy at all a part of Sound Therapy? What exactly did it mean when you talked about “emotional releases”?

Suzy-  As a therapist, I will have a consultation with a client and whatever comes up in that is relevant to the person. We’re not necessarily trying to dig around but counselling and talk therapy does have a place, however in a one to one situation, we would have a consultation and discuss what the main issues for the person are, and then sometimes that process itself is very healing in itself and then they receive the sound. When we’re working on a one to one level, we’re working with the chakra system where we scan the body, the energetic system of the body, and there’s a bit of intuition as well, as to where the sounds need to be. We might even place instruments on the body, we might put the singing bowls on the body and ease tension in the body. 

So there’s a balance within talk therapy and within the sound in a treatment situation. When it’s a group situation, it’s a more general “sound journey” or a “sound bath”, so it’s not tailored specifically to one person, it’s more general but it might have a theme. So it might be for relaxation or it might be for energizing, or it may be connected to a specific season of the year, like we’re just coming into spring here in Scotland so I was just doing one last night connected to Spring and that was lovely! So we’ve taken some of those nice themes and then focused on a general soundscape that is designed around that.

Valerie-  Right. So, what was the inspiration behind founding Soundsphere and ANSU School of Sound?

Suzy-  Well, I first heard about Sound Therapy around about thirty years ago, a friend gave me a book on healing through sound and I was at the time interested in music but it was just a hobby of mine, and I liked singing, and this book sort of opened my eyes to the potential that there was in something such as Sound Therapy, and it wasn’t until around 2006, that became the time that I chose to train and that was because a close family member actually got very ill and I wanted to help her and lots of things like mainstream medicine weren’t able to support her in a more holistic way. They would give her the medicines but there was no other support, so I started to do more research. 

I’d done a little workshop a few years previous to that and I started to use my voice with her, I was doing relaxation sessions and she really responded so well that I decided to then go and train, and I did a two year practitioner level training course, and through that time I worked with my niece very closely and gave her a lot of sessions and it really helped her. Sadly, she did die because she was seriously ill, and it was a very very tragic situation but what I did see from it was how much benefit she got out of the Sound Therapy treatment and that after that time and when I completed my training, I felt so inspired to help others and since then, I have worked with terminal clients as well as people with stress or people who want relaxation, or even prevention – you can sort of prevent illnesses coming around. 

So that was why I started Soundsphere and I started running workshops and sound journeys. And then a number of years later, I’d been working with a colleague who trained together with me, Anthar Kharana, and we wanted to train more people because people kept coming to us asking if it could help children with autism, adults with Parkinson’s or Alzheimer’s and many situations, and I felt strongly that yes, it can but there’s only two of us here and at that time, Sound Therapy was still breaking through over here and it wasn’t that well known, it’s become a lot more well known and a lot of people training in it now, a lot of people offering sessions. So we started an annual course to be able to train more people to spread the word, and to be out there spreading the sound, so we’ve got students who are graduates now, who are working within mental health or with addiction groups or adding it into yoga classes, or many different things so that’s what we wanted to do. 

We wanted to see it in schools and hospitals and we’ve got a new school program that’s running this year and some of the schools in Scotland where we’re actually going to be teaching the children how to play some of the singing bowls and give some support to the teachers as well because obviously, we’re in this very stressful situation at the moment, so we want to offer some therapeutic sound but it’s also under some sort of music connection, so that the children will also learn to play these instruments because technically, they are quite simple to play but there is a bit of skill within that and extra techniques and it’s to do with how you blend the instruments and when you use different instruments. That’s where the skill and training comes in.

Valerie-  Yes. Well, thank you for sharing an experience so personal to you and actually letting us know that despite it being a tragic experience, you took that to help other people when you saw how it benefited your niece, and that it became just as important for you to make other people aware of the benefits of Sound Therapy and founded a school that trains people on how they can help do the same for other people.

Suzy-  Yeah, thank you. Absolutely, I get feedback from people all the time about how it really helps them with their anxiety and their headaches, it can also be really supportive when people are going through major transformations in their life, whether that’s a house-move or the end of a relationship, or they’re grieving, it can really help them in all sorts of different situations. There’s really so many benefits and it works. So when people ask if it can help with health issues, yes, it can sort of help everything because you’re working beneath the symptoms, you’re working underneath and behind and you’re not getting involved in the outer world situation such as a marriage breakup or the illness, you’re working behind that to support them and give them that sense of peace, to be able to cope with these things.

Valerie- Yes.  Personally, what is it about sound that brings you peace?

Suzy-  Well, I just love the different sounds and it gives me a lot of peace to actually know that it’s helping a lot of people and for my own personal experience, when I’m delivering sound or working with instruments, it’s a really creative process. It’s that feeling of getting in the zone. I actually get a lot of benefit out of it as well. I feel calmer afterwards and when you’ve been creative and when you’ve produced something, it’s quite a rewarding feeling in that way. 

I’m very conscious when I’m creating sound, I’m very engaged and I’m not going into the relaxed state, and I’m very intuitive as well, sort of creating and guiding and weaving the sounds together so I think all of that that gives me a sense of peace, and just helping and seeing the benefits that people feel. A lot of people have an experience of weightlessness, or they see colours or they get images, clarity and insight and a lot of different benefits that come from it. I’m sure that I get some of those benefits as well!

Valerie-  Well, Suzy it’s been really great talking to you and more than understanding what Sound Therapy is, it’s been inspiring to know your story and the fact that it’s so important of you to look at how other people have benefitted from sound therapy and what you provide them with, and that’s what helps you be peaceful and that’s what keeps you happy. Thank you so much for talking to us and giving us an insight into what Sound Therapy is, how it’s used. Thank you, Suzy.

Suzy- You’re welcome, Valerie. Thank you so much for inviting me. I’m delighted to be part of your podcast series.

To know more about Suzy Nairn’s work, head over to:

ANSU School of Sound


LonePack Conversations- The Alternative Therapy Series: Music Therapy ft. Dr. Katrina McFerra‪n‬

They say “where words fail, music speaks.” Today let’s explore the power of music and the impact it can have on our mental health.

Also follow us on:
Apple Podcasts

Valerie-  Welcome to LonePack Conversations! I’m Valerie. 

Let’s introduce ourselves to Music Therapy with Dr. Katrina McFerran, a Registered Music Therapist and a Professor of Music Therapy at the University of Melbourne, Australia. She is an international expert on the topic of music, music therapy and adolescents.

Welcome, Dr. Katrina!

Dr. Katrina- Hi, Valerie. Lovely to meet you. 

Valerie-  First off, could you explain to us what music therapy is and how it’s different from listening to music in order to calm down or lighten our mood?

Dr. Katrina- Yeah. Well, I think that the term or the idea of Music Therapy has meant many things over many centuries but at the moment, we have taken it as a description of professional practice- of a career that you go to University and study the theory and methods and the research and then you’re able to be qualified to practice. It has become one of the many allied health professions in my country and in many countries around the world where people work in hospitals alongside speech pathologists and occupational therapists and physiotherapists and psychologists, and therefore that requires training about different diseases, disorders and understanding within that, how music can be helpful. 

So normally what people do is that they’re intuitive. You know the kinds of music that you love and you select it, with or without thinking about it, to make yourself feel better and that’s often really successful, whereas Music Therapy is about really identifying exactly what the purpose of using music would be for therapeutic purposes, what benefits there might be and making a plan saying if that’s what you’re trying to achieve, here’s a way that we could use music that’s based on research and evidence, that will help you achieve that goal and so therefore it’s more like a treatment planning model rather than just an intuitive process that you undertake for yourself.

Valerie-   Personally, what does music mean to you? What got you interested in the field of music therapy?

Dr. Katrina- Well, as you said in the beginning, my specialization within Music Therapy is on adolescent identity and the ways that young people use music as a way of exploring their emotions and expressing something about their personality and about their hopes and aspirations for their lives and the ways that different types of music can say something about who we are. So not surprisingly, I became interested in music therapy myself because that was the role that music played for me in my own youth. As a classical musician, I grew up on the edge of the desert in a small town in Australia and there wasn’t a lot of classical musicians in that town and so it was a way of marking out my territory in saying that this is the kind of person I am, this is my aesthetic and cultural value, my discipline and my focus. But of course, what music means to me, I would say is entirely personal and different to what it might mean to you, for example. I don’t know if you want to tell us what music means to you?

Valerie-  So for me, if I had to think about it, I don’t think of myself as someone who’s very artistic, right? So if I’m ever low or if I ever need to think about something, I always have a song that I’m constantly humming just so that I calm down and it’s always my go to. I don’t sing very well but it’s still something I choose to do over any other thing I’d rather be doing. 

Dr. Katrina- Perfect. So the difference between music that we use for our wellbeing and music as a kind of high culture performance, which has to be perfect, I think is really important. Interestingly enough, I teach a lot of music students at University and they often have the worst relationships with music in a way because for them it’s associated with pressure and perfection, whereas the rest of us, who are not music performers, are able to have this nurturing relationship with music where we can just hum and it can just soothe us during difficult times because we’re not putting pressure on it to earn us an income or to do other things. 

Valerie-  Right. You did say that one of your major fields of expertise is adolescent mental health. How have you found that music therapy impacts the mental health of adolescents?  

Dr. Katrina- Well, I think the way that you just described your relationship with music is actually typical of many young people and you know, young people get old and our relationships with music don’t really change for people generally but the passion and the time commitment really starts during adolescence and often during more challenging times in our lives, we turn back to music again in that same way. 

To my interest in how music can be used by adolescents has been really informed by the practice, I worked in children’s hospitals and in palliative care, we had people who were really mentally or physically ill and I learnt from them that they use music in really different ways- for some people it was to soothe and calm, for other people it was to get energy, for other people it was to express their emotions and try to understand them and almost help get rid of something so that they were done in a way that didn’t hurt anybody. 

So I noticed that there were very different ways that teenagers in particular use music depending on what else is happening in their lives and I started to think that it’s not so much about music doing something to you as a teenager, it’s not that you choose this particular kind of music and it will calm you. It’s much more about how teenagers choose the music of their preference and they use it to do whatever they want. So you could use the same piece of music to help you go to sleep that you might also use to do your homework or use to travel in public transport to distract yourself from how boring it is. The way that teenagers are so passionate about music helped me understand that they could use music in any way they wanted, towards their mental health. 

What I also learnt is that when we’re really depressed and ruminating on an issue, that we can also use music to make ourselves feel worse. We can accompany really negative thoughts with songs that reinforce those thoughts and we don’t feel better at the end, we feel even more angry. We might use music to accompany substance use or drug taking, which might be fun for some people but could be associated with a really unhealthy habit of addiction for other people. I started to realise that not only did everybody use music in different ways but sometimes it was really helpful and other times it was really unhelpful. So my role as a music therapist is often to touch base with young people and say “So how is that going for you? Is it working? Can we strengthen the way that you’re using music and make it even more powerful or do we need to have a look and see if it’s actually backfiring and making you feel worse, then let’s talk about that and if there are other decisions that you could make.” 

Valerie-  It’s really interesting that while talking about how music can really help somebody, you also brought out that it has a potential downside to it which is honestly not something I thought about! I did hear a few of my friends telling me they were upset and so I listened to songs that made me even sadder but I did not know that it had such a potential downside to it as well so thank you for bringing that up.

Dr. Katrina- You’re so welcome and did you know that sometimes, it’s so great to feel sad. You need to feel sad and you need to cry and music is the perfect friend for that. But it’s when you make it a habit, what I discovered is when young people get into habits, initially they hoped they would feel better afterwards because they got to vent, we need to vent out our emotions but if you notice over time that you actually feel worse, it actually deepens your relationship with negative emotions and you don’t feel better, that’s a really qualitative difference. Instinctively, we do think it helps, because normally it does. Just not always. 

Valerie-  True. You were telling us about the positives of music and you also said that it’s important that you touch base with the people you interact with when it comes to your music therapy sessions. For someone who does not have much knowledge about music, how does a music therapy session start? How does a music therapist understand them and help them through their problems, through music?

Dr. Katrina- That’s a great question. As I said at the beginning, music therapists work in a kind of treatment model- which is you begin at an assessment of what people’s needs are and what their musical interests are, and then you make a plan, you undertake the plan and then you evaluate it. So an assessment can be formal or informal but for me, when I work with teenagers at least in Australia, they usually are a little bit hesitant about what this music therapy thing is, so I usually start pretty casually and ask them what kind of music they like, because the basis of our relationship is going to be their music. 

It is an assessment which is casually offered and it allows the young person to know that I’m interested in their music and that I’m not here to tell them to listen to my music or to comment on their music or any of those things that they’re usually worried about. So then once I know what kind of music they’re interested in, then I need to know about what they need and why they’re in therapy. Often if I’m working in a hospital then I might  already know from all of their notes about what illness they’ve got, what they’re struggling with and I may have been referred in to address anxiety or insomnia, for example and if I don’t know, then I need to talk to the young person about that and then from there, I’ll make suggestions. 

So if it’s a young person who’s struggling with depression and they love listening to hip-hop music, to choose the most common and most popular music, then I have a basis. I know they’re struggling with depression and I’d say “okay, do you feel like it would be helpful to potentially write a song where you can express to me what’s happening to you and how you’re feeling about yourself right now?”. I’d say that I could produce some beats and we can choose those beats together and then we could write the words and maybe record it or something. I might offer that as an option. So you love hip-hop and you’re feeling depressed. Let’s have a look at that with music. 

If they’re feeling so depressed that they really don’t want to do anything so active, then I’ll ask them to start off by playing me a song, one of their favourite songs or something that can tell me about how they’re travelling, letting their music speak to me so that I start to get an understanding of where they’re at and I might be able to be helpful to them. So I might suggest writing songs or I might suggest listening to songs, or if I’m working in an institution where somebody’s so depressed that they’re just struggling to even get out of bed and they’re hospitalized, then I might not go with words at all. I might just pass somebody a drum and I might have a guitar or an instrument and I might say “let’s play”. Together we might just improvise and be together in music and I would analyse the way that they’re playing and amplify certain things that they do and they don’t have to be a musician, it could be a guitar they’re just fiddling with, and then we analyse that as you might do in psychoanalysis. So it’s like “Okay, this is what I’m hearing. Is this how you’re feeling right now?” and so we might be able to talk about it after but not leading with talking for someone who’s not really in that kind of a state. So you can hear how it’s really different depending on where I meet somebody, what they need, what kind of music they like, and what they’re willing to do, at the end of the day.

Valerie-  Obviously because each person differs, you have to have different approaches but all of them really sound very interesting in terms of the fact that you make music with them, regardless of whether they’re with lyrics or without, you really sit down and make music with them and analyse what they’re feeling through that one bit.

Dr. Katrina- It’s so fun. It’s a great job.

Valerie-  It sounds like a lot of fun!

So Dr. Katrina, why don’t you tell us what the therapeutic benefits of music are? Does music play a therapeutic role in your personal life?

Dr. Katrina-  Music does play a therapeutic role in my life and there is no doubt that at times of struggle or pain, that I turn to music and I listen more during those times. I play more during those moments in my life whereas when everything’s going about just fine, then I have music run in the background and it certainly brings me pleasure but I don’t feel so drawn to it, so it varies and I think that is true of most people. 

I think that the therapeutic benefits of music are tied up with that too because music is so vast and so magnificent and so much potential is inherent in music. It can go in so many directions that the therapeutic benefits can be anything, but they can’t be everything. If I was to talk to you right now and find out what your problems were, we couldn’t fix all of them through music. We would have to go okay, which one of those are we going to focus on today? And then we can work out which kind of music would be best for that. It’s not a drug, it doesn’t just come into your system and make you happy. It’s really, music has what you might call potentials that are therapeutic and the fact that we choose to use music can achieve joy, peace, love, connectedness, expression, authenticity and so many things, but it doesn’t happen at once. 

If you sing in a choir, for you it might be the pleasure of the sounds of harmonies all around you, for another person it might just be great to be out of the house and doing something which isn’t domestic duties, and for another person it might be about the conversations that happen before and after choir because they’re lonely. We can all be sharing in one the experience and music can be affording us different therapeutic benefits depending on what we need. 

Valerie-  Dr. Katrina, thank you so much for agreeing to do this and talking to us about music therapy. Without a doubt, it’s been one of the most interesting conversations I’ve had and there’s been so much to learn from what you’ve talked to us about today. We’ve learnt that music means different things to each and every individual even if you’re all part of the same thing, and that you can express yourself and say stuff about who you are through music. And while it may not solve each problem, you can work through whatever you’re facing through music and I think that is a beautiful note to end this on and I just want to thank you for talking to us about so much and allowing us to learn so much from you today.

Dr. Katrina-  I want to thank you for asking and being interested, I think it’s a great topic to talk about.

Valerie-  Thank you.

LonePack Conversations- The Alternative Therapy Series: Dance Therapy ft. Tarana Khatri

There’s a song titled “Dance your troubles away”. Interesting, isn’t it? How dance is considered a means to help put our minds at ease. 

Also follow us on:
Apple Podcasts

Valerie- Welcome to LonePack Conversations! I’m Valerie. 

Today let’s talk about dance therapy with Tarana Khatri, a Dance Movement Psychotherapist. She is the co-founder of Synchrony, a founding member of the Indian Association of Dance Movement Therapy, and part of the Cambridge Medical Centre, Dubai.  She encourages exploration and learning about the self through creative and reflective interactions.

Hey, Tarana!

Tarana-  Hello! Hi, Valerie.

Valerie- How are you today?

Tarana- I’m doing good, how are you doing?

Valerie- I’m great as well. 

Tarana- Great.

Valerie- Tarana, why don’t you start by telling us how dance and movement relate to our mental health? 

Tarana– I think it’s important to note that in Dance and Movement Psychotherapy, movement is the medium but the instrument that we’re working on is the body. So, if you were to ask me how the body plays a role in mental health, that’s something that I can clarify for you. We believe that the body and mind are interconnected and our bodies collect, process and store information just like our minds. If we had an experience, just the way your mind collects it, processes it and stores it as a memory, your body does that as well. So if at a later stage you’re trying to understand that experience or the pattern it creates, it’s important to understand it both, from the experience of the body as well as the experience of the mind. That’s where Dance Movement Psychotherapy plays a role in allowing us to explore that experience of the body and relate it to the experience of the mind, which eventually helps us understand our mental health and how we can make it more efficient.

Valerie- Can you explain to us what Dance Therapy is and how it compares to conventional Psychotherapy?

Tarana- Yes, ofcourse. Dance Movement Psychotherapy is the therapeutic role of movement to work towards cognitive, emotional and social wellbeing, The role of movement can vary. For example, it could be really working with engagement of the body in lots of dance-like movement patterns. It could be working with breath. So it’s this idea that the level of body engagement can vary but it uses the body in different capacities to understand our personal behavior patterns and emotional patterns and how we can develop coping patterns that work for our environment. 

I think the most important thing to note is that this word “dance” comes everywhere. Most often, there is a misconception of what Dance Movement Psychotherapy is in terms of quoting dance to feel better or “I don’t dance so this is not for me”. I think it’s very important to note the difference between dance and Dance Movement Psychotherapy. Dance is where you basically learn steps of any cultural style or to a particular kind of music, where your intent is either to learn a skill to perform, or fitness or because it’s something you enjoy. But in Dance Movement Psychotherapy, it’s a very intentional, explorative process wherein you get into it in order to understand yourself better, to understand your patterns better and to learn your emotional behavior response patterns. 

Valerie- Okay. While you were giving us this answer and talked about Dance Therapy, you said that movement is the medium and your body is the instrument. Now when you talk about movement and using movement to express yourself, Drama Therapy does that as well. Drama Therapy is also about expressing with your body movements. So how does one understand what kind of therapy they should try? I mean, how does dance differ from drama therapy and stuff like that?

Tarana- There are a lot of overlapping patterns amongst all the creative arts therapists. I think within each therapy also, each therapist as their own personal approach. But drama extends to include a very theatrical perspective, bringing in the narrative or the story, bringing in roles. Whereas in Dance Movement Psychotherapy, engagement of the body is one element. Movement expression can be spontaneous, it doesn’t always have to be continued into dialogue or voice being engaged as well. So, it depends- you have role theory, you have adaptation of narratives. 

In both cases, the body can be an instrument but the medium of drama and movement is what would differentiate it.  I’ll give you an example- in movement therapy, we believe that when you grow up, you have different patterns of development. You have your cognitive development, you have your physical development which is your motor movement, and you have emotional development, amongst many other forms of development that happens. There are some theorists that say that along with all of this, there’s a movement development that happens wherein a combination of cognitive skills, emotional capacity and physical ability integrate to allow you to perform certain movement rhythms- how slow your body moves, how fast your body moves, how you switch between different phases. All of that is a combination of these capacities and that’s the realm that movement therapists work with. 

Valerie- Alright. Thank you for spreading light on that for us. 

Tarana – Yeah.

Valerie- Tarana, when did you realise that you wanted to become a Dance Movement Therapist?

Tarana-  That’s an interesting question! It was 2008, I was doing my undergrad in Psychology when I came across an article in the paper that spoke about Dance Movement Psychotherapy. I was like I love to dance, I’m really passionate about Psychology. If I had the opportunity to put it together, why not? So I set on my course to be a Dance Movement Psychotherapist, not realizing that I didn’t quite understand what that really was. I think it was a very intense and beautiful journey of me not only learning about the field in itself but learning about how I wanted to adapt to being a Dance Movement Psychotherapist and understanding what it meant in the larger world but also more importantly, what it meant for me.

Valerie- Right. So what did it mean for you?

Tarana- So there are certain things. While growing up, my exposure to dance had been very structured. It was always a particular style with a teacher teaching you steps. It was expressive in terms of I enjoyed it. I loved the experience of learning to dance, I loved the experience of performing but when I explored Dance Movement Psychotherapy, I really understood how to reflect on the sensation of the body and how to really look on the inside and know what story your body has to say from the life that it has lived, what you’ve held onto in your body without really being aware of it, in your entire life’s experience. 

I think that insight is what I carried out in my work. Even if I have a session where I’m primarily doing verbal conversation, I always find a way to bring that body experience into that conversation because it’s important to know that Dance Movement Therapy isn’t just to come, move and finish the session. It always culminates into a verbal reflection and a discussion and kind of integrating that to say this is what we’ve learnt, how do we take that forward?

Valerie- I love that you said that it’s a reflection into what you’ve been holding onto without being aware, in terms of an experience or anything else, and you help release that and understand that through movement therapy.

Tarana- Yes, ofcourse. I think “release” is a very strong word there because it’s important to become aware of it and then process it and of that process involves releasing it, then that’s something that you do. I think that’s why it’s so important for this process to be facilitated by a trained professional because if the release happens before you or your body is ready for it, it can be a very overwhelming experience that might do more harm than be helpful.

Valerie- You’ve been talking about dance therapy sessions. Could you tell us what goes on in one of your dance therapy sessions? Also how do you analyse someone’s emotional state through their movements and help bring them to a state of well-being through dance movement therapy?

Tarana- We don’t interpret the movements to say oh, you’re moving fast so it means this, or your body is small so it means this. But it’s important to say okay, if this is what we’re observing as a movement pattern, where could it be coming from? Why is that pattern comfortable for you? I think that’s where the analysis happens. To bring awareness to the existing pattern and identify why it’s working for you and if there’s an efficient way to carry that pattern forward wherein it helps cope with challenges and helps you move forward if there’s anything in particular that you’re choosing to process or move away from. So that would be the role of how one would look at the movement element. 

There are different tools of movement, observation and analysis that we use- some are more systematic and rigid, some are more flexible and observational but it depends on each individual therapist and their training to know how much of these analysis tools they use and how they integrate it into their work. For example, I work very developmentally- I apply an understanding of how the body grows from childhood to adulthood and how we can look to learn from that process of growing, adapt to what we really need and apply that in our daily life. Looking at the session in itself, it’s very different for each therapist but I can tell you how my sessions usually are. 

It’s a three part session- you start with an opening ritual, which is usually a transition into a therapeutic space. It could be just a verbal check-in, a body check-in or maybe some breathwork. Then there’s an exploratory part of a session where you really go into what it is that we want to look at in that particular session. With children or even with adults, it could be just playing. It could be pure spontaneous playing, it could be in-depth processing of trauma, it could be identifying a person’s response to stress or identifying triggers of one’s worry and concern. 

So the exploratory part of that session is about really exploring and expanding the experience that the person is in therapy for. The level of movement engagement in that section can vary depending on the comfort of the person that you’re working with, how open they are to movement engagement, and what their range of mobility is. It kind of translates into a verbal discussion, acknowledging the realizations and insight that may have come in during the exploration and how that can be integrated into their learnings about themselves and how that could be integrated into their behavioral responses from then onwards. 

Valerie- So it’s basically you looking at their movements or something that they’ve initiated and then asking them questions that would help them gauge a deeper meaning to what’s happening in their life and how they deal with it?

Tarana- Yes, it’s a very similar pattern to that. Sometimes, it comes out of spontaneous play, sometimes it comes out of a movement initiated by them, sometimes a more directive activity that may have been introduced during that session. It could be purely spontaneous, it could be initiated by the client saying what they want to do. Although for some people that can be very scary so some people prefer to have some direction or intentionality and ask for a boundary to work with, to explore within. 

The last part of the session is usually a closing. I think if you talk to any creative arts therapist, for most of us, rituals are so important. So is the closing and winding down of that shared space because in the exploration session, it is a shared, co-created space. It’s not me saying let’s do this and it’s not the client telling me to listen to all their troubles. It’s a very co-creative space. It’s this dialogue. Even if it’s in the body, there’s the concept of a dialogue. There’s a concept of give and take. So it’s important to finish that integration and prepare them to carry that forward into their lives.

Valerie- Right. So Tarana, working as a psychotherapist, you told us what happens in a dance therapy session and you did say that it is a co-creative space but it is also true that working as a psychotherapist, you probably do carry the burden of the problems your clients share with you. How do you care for your mental health? 

Tarana- – For me, I wouldn’t necessarily call it a burden but sometimes you do absorb some of their emotions and some of the experiences and that’s so vital for the efficiency of the process in itself, which is why I think there are three parts that I have followed and I think is important for any professional. One- your training. Your training equips you to create boundaries and awareness of how much you’re absorbing and how much that’s influencing the process that you’re facilitating for the client. 

The second- supervision, wherein you go to a senior therapist, no matter how senior a therapist you may be. You always go to a supervisor who kind of offers you a space to reflect on your personal work, see how much of your personal self is coming into your professional world and how much of your professional self may be affecting your personal world. Third- personal territory. I believe every therapist should have a therapist. I think there’s a misconception that if you’re a therapist, you’re very calm, you don’t argue, you’re always able to have a very mediative conversation but in reality, we’re all humans. We get angry and upset and so I think it’s important to have our own space, being held by somebody else that allows us to explore all of that. That’s basically what I do. 

I was blessed to have a sufficient amount of training which I continue to pursue to keep up to date, I am in supervision, and there were periods of time when I was also in long-term personal therapy and now I access my personal therapist as and when I need it. It’s also two-fold, right? It’s not only protecting myself but it’s maintaining a safe space for my client because if I don’t feel regulated in my own body, in that shared space, a lot of it could come out in the work that I’m doing and it would be unfair to the person who’s coming to me if a lot of my work was more about me than them.

Valerie- True.  

Tarana- Especially with the Pandemic, I think it’s really proven and re-humanized therapists in a way to say that we feel it too. We feel the fear, we feel the anxiousness, we feel the stress.

Valerie- So true. Tarana, thank you so much for talking to us today, for spreading so much light on what Dance Therapy is, how it works and for telling us that Dance Therapy is something that helps us understand our experiences from the body and relate it to the experiences of the min, and to tap into those emotions through dance and movement. I think it’s really helped us gain a greater understanding of what Dance Movement Therapy is, and also your final bit telling us how you unwind and how you keep yourself fit in order to ensure your clients are given due justice as well. Thank you so much.

Tarana- Thank you so much for inviting me and having me on this series, Valerie.

Valerie- Thank you.