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Expressive Therapy: body-based therapies for trauma counselling

July 18, 2017

About SACE

The Sexual Assault Centre of Edmonton (SACE) exists to support people impacted by sexual violence and engage communities to promote respect and uphold a culture of consent. Our services include individual and group counselling for people ages 3 and up, public education, policy consultation, information and support sessions, a 24-Hour Support and Information line, and outreach to our diverse communities. All of our services are individually tailored to meet people where they are at.

Each year, we provide thousands of hours of counselling to survivors of sexual violence over the age of three. Most would not otherwise be able to afford counseling. Many of our clients are some of the most marginalized and vulnerable in our city. We work closely with the Zebra Child Protection Centre, and receive all of their sexual abuse referrals for counselling. This year we are on track to double the number of clients we serve. As professionals in the area of trauma, our therapists are continuously developing their skills and moving into new modalities for treatment, so that clients always receive the optimal support and can express their trauma in the way that makes the most sense for them.

What is Expressive Therapy?

The healing process after trauma from sexual violence is something that doesn’t happen all at once: it takes time, and it takes continued support. And sometimes we just don’t have the words to express how we feel. While much can be addressed through talking therapies, gaining access to traumatic experiences through expressive and sensory, body-based forms of therapy as well gives survivors one more tool to be able to heal. Research has shown incredible connections between trauma, stress and physiology: trauma is stored in the body.

The expressive therapies include art, music, dance/movement, drama, poetry/creative writing, play, and sand tray therapy. These research and evidence-based therapies are non-verbal and sensory-based, which is helpful because trauma frequently disconnects us from the body, and because talk therapy has an end point. These therapies allow people to experience themselves and communicate on multiple levels—visual, tactile, kinesthetic and more. Expressive therapies can help people achieve feelings of comfort and security, and decrease the fear of body sensations. For people who may not be able to articulate thoughts, sensations, emotions or perceptions, it is one way to convey what may be difficult to express with words.

Sand Tray Therapy

Sand tray therapy allows a person to construct their own microcosm using miniature toys and sand. The scene that’s created acts as a reflection of the person’s own life and gives them the opportunity to resolve conflicts, remove obstacles, and gain self-acceptance.

Although sand tray therapy may look like child’s play, it is a highly therapeutic and multidimensional form of therapy that can provide emotional release and realization for a person in therapy. Adults who have been traumatized and show limited response to other forms of therapy may respond well to sand tray therapy. The environment presents an atmosphere free from threats, and the therapist works with the client to alter the positions of the miniature objects as representations of true people and events. By facilitating change in play, a person can gain the ability to recognize that these same changes can be made in their own life.

Art Therapy

Art therapy creates a safe space for healing that allows this process to take place, and encourages the client to then work through what the creative piece brings to the surface in a supportive, directed environment. The focus is on the process of creating, rather than the end result. Often it can be hard to verbally express feelings like shame or overwhelming fear. This means that sometimes the only way to move these emotions is through creative means. Non-verbal expression can also be important for processing traumas that occurred as a young child before learning to speak. This approach helps clients to find personal meaning and direction, reduce stress and anxiety, cope with pain, enhance cognitive abilities, develop resilience, self-awareness, self-esteem and confidence, and acts as a transition after counselling therapy.

We Need Your Support

Currently, SACE has just one playroom for use by our 4 play therapists and 2 expressive arts therapists. The demand for these therapies exceeds the capacity. As well, the space is set up for young children, with murals on the walls and toys and play stations set up throughout. This is highly effective for kids 10 and under, but means that the space is too juvenile to be an appropriate therapeutic space for older children, youth and adults who could also benefit from these therapies.

To address this, SACE needs a space for more creative therapies, and specifically a space that is appropriate for youth ages 12-17 and for adults. Giving clients a space where they can reclaim their creativity and ability to play can be incredibly therapeutic, and can even help those that are “stuck” in their therapy to move forward.

SACE has already begun fundraising efforts for this cause, at the We Believe: The Art of Healing gala, and through the generous donation of Chicks With Cheques and 100 Men YEG. With your support, we can do it.