Asking for help

I remember being pregnant and veteran moms confiding in how much my life was about to change. “What does that even mean?” I thought. My partner and I wanted this baby so much and we felt as prepared as we could have been. I was so supported throughout my pregnancy and took care of every aspect of my well-being. And still, motherhood hit me like a ton of bricks.

Maternal mental health is getting more attention these days as more moms are speaking out about their experiences with postpartum depression and anxiety, birth trauma, and parenting struggles. And, it wasn’t until I had my daughter that I started to understand the gravity of “Mom Guilt”, felt the effects of sleep deprivation, and experienced my body’s involuntary reaction to hearing my daughter in distress that I realized both how much moms need support and how much stigma there still is in asking for it.

What are some of the reasons why Moms don’t seek help?

  • A real or sensed belief that someone will deem you an “unfit parent.” Sometimes a deep want to protect your baby takes a twist in your mind into thinking about the worst possible thing happening to them. Intrusive and repetitive thoughts of hurting your baby are horrifying to think about and very hard to find a health professional you trust enough to tell. Let’s be clear though. Any professional who’s had training in perinatal and postpartum mental health knows that there are ZERO cases of moms fulfilling these fantasies if she finds them upsetting. Moms will go to extraordinary lengths to protect their babies and no mom should be criminalized for her mental health.
  • You’ve had 10, 20, or 30 years of being independent.  If you’re like a lot of women these days, you’re used to taking care of yourself, doing things on your schedule, and not relying on other people for your happiness and well-being. New motherhood is NOT the time to assert your independence though. In fact, isolation is a huge risk factor for perinatal mood disorders. Birdie Meyer, past president of Postpartum International says, “In our lives we have seasons of giving and seasons of receiving… As a new mom, you are in the season of receiving.” This means asking for help and allowing people to give it.
  • You don’t have a sense of what’s normal and what’s not. Sleep deprivation or postpartum depression? Baby rash or something more serious? If you haven’t spent much time around other moms and young babies, the learning curve for taking care of a newborn is staggering. Not only is everything with your baby new, but you’re not sure what you’re feeling and whether it’s in the realm of normal. One gauge that may be helpful is whether you have a sense of “not feeling like yourself”. Postpartum depression and anxiety looks different for different people. Depression doesn’t necessarily look like crying all day or not being able to get out of bed. It could be not feeling anything at all. When it’s well outside of YOUR normal it’s a red flag to check-in further. If none of your care providers are screening you, take it upon yourself to take the Edinburgh Postpartum Depression Scale to start to quantify how you’re feeling.
  • You feel like you’re the only one struggling. If your only gauge of how your mom friends are doing is by their instagram and facebook photos, let me be the first to burst your bubble that everyone is struggling in their own way. You are not alone and if you can find a space where moms are being vulnerable and honest, you will find stories of heartbreak and fear of judgment. While the content of the stories is always different, the feelings are relatable. Building a community of people who “get it” is enormously validating and reassuring.  

Even in the most beautiful births and happiest of circumstances to bring a baby into the world, there is still an incredible amount of grief and loss inherent in becoming a parent. There’s a metamorphosis that happens with our bodies and a sense of sacrifice in the physicality of what we give to our babies. There’s a sense of innocence lost as the gravity of responsibility for life weighs on us. There is also profound joy. And so much cuteness. Those first yawns can melt your heart. And there are times when the miracle of it all is almost impossible to believe. These feelings don’t happen in isolation from one another. They happen in tandem and it can be overwhelming to hold it all.

For me, asking for help looked like going to support groups. I met with a lactation consultant when I got mastitis and a sleep consultant when my daughter couldn’t rest without being bounced on a yoga ball with the vacuum running (no joke). I had a meal train and regular visitors. A friend started a therapist mama group where we met monthly. I created a secret facebook group with my friends from our birth class so we could talk with each other about what our very similarly aged babies were up to. And, I made art and wrote in my journal, knowing those spaces could hold my feelings while also shifting how I was thinking about myself.

There’s no one answer, rather, asking for help is a process of checking in with what you’re feeling, what you need in the moment, and reaching out to those who can offer care. Check out this list of resources in the Asheville area and I hope you make good use of them as our community of mothers is growing into an incredibly validating, supportive, and non-judgmental space where we come together and raise each other up. 

*Note, I will continue to update and add to the resources page. Feel free to send me additional information if you’d like to add to this page!*

The Practice

What is the purpose of doing art therapy? Ask any art therapist this question and you’ll get a laundry list of compelling reasons why art heals but one that isn’t talked about a lot is that making art is a way to practice how you want to feel so you can bring those qualities to other parts of your life. 

Let’s say you are a thinker, a planner, someone who’s analytical. But it bothers you to always “be in your head” and you think yourself in circles, doubting yourself and your intuition. Making art would serve as practice in being spontaneous, not having a plan for what you’re going to make, and for not knowing what your art is about. Maybe I’d challenge you by having you to start painting and then halfway through ask you to turn the page and keep going or tear up the image and make a collage from the pieces.

Let’s say you have low self-esteem, feel like you can’t do anything right, and feel hopeless a lot of the time. Making art would both mirror these feelings (meaning you probably don’t like your art either) and would be a way to practice self-compassion, gratitude, and enjoyment for the art-making process. Maybe I’d invite you to make a large sculpture or collage that takes several weeks so you feel a sense of pride and mastery for working through challenges and completing something you set your mind and heart to doing.

The reality is that the art you make in art therapy doesn’t have to mean anything. It can be about practicing how you want to feel and then translating those skills to other parts of your life. 

The woman who thinks herself in circles practices and learns to trust herself. When she catches herself ruminating about a conflict at work she has tools she learned in art therapy to calm her mind, check-in with how she’s feeling, and tune into her role in the conflict without letting it spiral into a sleepless night.

The man who feels hopeless practices and learns he has value. When he goes on a nervous first date he has the embodied experience of working through challenges, looking for joy, and investing himself in something worthwhile.

Art therapy is a way to “try on” how you want to feel so you can bring those qualities into your life. It’s a novel and transformative way to make art that takes the pressure off the art itself. As you make art this month, make your intention to feel a certain way and use the art to practice the feeling. If your intention is to feel more grounded, let that feeling guide what you make, what material you use, and what your process is and then watch how the feeling stays with you long after you finish your art.

Burnout, Compassion Fatigue, and Vicarious Trauma

IMG_2564Therapists, social workers, counselors: One of the many joys of my work as an art therapist is being in space with you as you navigate what it means to be of service to someone else. Many of you are called to this work because you have felt the enormity of making a difference in someone’s life. You know how to listen with your whole body. You can put yourself in someone else’s shoes. And, you’ve had the honor of witnessing someone’s most vulnerable and freeing moments in the sacred space of your office.

The challenge of being a sensitive, empathic, and caring person is that you accumulate stories, pain, and trauma from your clients and feel it’s your job to hold them. 

You might feel guilty or ashamed to seek your own help because you feel this is what comes with the territory of your work. What I see over and over again is counselors who burn out and will themselves to keep going until they have a full-blown health issue or leave the field completely.

Burnout, compassion fatigue, and vicarious trauma are gradations in a realm of giving too much of yourself and taking on what’s not yours. Signs you are out of equilibrium might include replaying your client’s story over and over again, having trouble sleeping, and feeling helpless and small. It’s easy to brush off your symptoms as just being work stress.

It takes an act of courage, honesty, and vulnerability to seek out your own counseling so you can lessen the emotional burden you are carrying. 

Taking this step models to your clients that you know what it’s like to be vulnerable with another person and to prioritize your mental and emotional health. Not only is it essential for your overall sense of well-being, but it’s how you’ll make being a helper a lasting career, where your clients can feel your sense of presence and availability.

Take this self-assessment to see a quantitative measure of how much your work as a helper is affecting your sense of well-being. If you’re seeing signs of burnout, compassion fatigue, or vicarious trauma please reach out to a qualified professional so you can keep doing your important work. The image above is a reminder to keep aligning with your true north and to take joy in your work even as it resides amidst darkness and pain.

How art-making changes your brain waves

How art-making changes your brain waves

This blog is inspired by a recent talk I attended by the elder midwife, Whapio, who spoke about peak experiences at the Wise Woman Herbal Conference in Asheville. Check out this interview where she speaks about altered states of consciousness and more. Below is my understanding of what I heard, written through the lens of art therapy.
Did you know that making art sends you into an altered state of consciousness that actually changes your brain waves? If you’ve made art recently, you’ve probably felt it but may not have known what was actually going on. In ordinary reality, we operate in beta brain waves. This is where we think, make decisions, follow directions, and write instructions. A new parent in orchestration mode is 100% in beta. Beta is important so we can have jobs, drive our cars, and strategize about keeping our little ones safe. But it’s not a place where we heal or create.When you make art, a shift happens. Your breathing slows. Your thoughts slow. And your brain waves slow – from beta to alpha. This is an extraordinary place where our senses are alive. We hear things with new clarity, we see the richness of color, and feel the textures of the materials we’re working with. Alpha is the place where we experience flow, a term coined by psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (check out his TED talk). Artists are familiar with this place. It’s where you lose your sense of time and place as you are consumed by the creative task at hand.

As you continue slowing down into theta brain waves – and maybe this is what separates art therapy from an art class or crafting –  is you develop a sense of deep knowing or understanding that is very distinct from thinking. And, it’s more profound than the benefits of creativity and flow. As an art therapist I am lucky to be a witness to this incredible process. Here’s what I see: my client is in the midst of working on a piece. She’s immersed in her art, painting about something in her life. Seemingly out of nowhere she starts crying.

She’s startled by her own revelation and caught off guard by the truth she’s just seen in her artwork. 

These moments are unexpected, powerful, and clarifying. I call them “aha” moments and I see them happen to my clients all the time when they shift into theta, where our subconscious lives. Theta is about our relationships, our past, our dreams. It can be dark and heavy and also insightful and incredibly meaningful.

Beyond theta is delta, the deepest state of consciousness where our most profound experiences live. It’s a rare treat to have a delta experience while art-making, though you can bet it will be life-changing.

With this beta knowledge of what your brain goes through while art-making, see if you can track your own experience of going into an altered state of consciousness through art-making. See what you notice as you transition from thinking, to feeling, to deep knowing and what you learn about yourself in the process.

Happy art-making from your companion, guide, and witness,
Ali

Transitions

Transitions

October is a time of transition. We all feel it. The nights are getting cooler and the days are getting shorter. We’re back in the full swing of school. Even the air smells different with the changing of the leaves.

For many people, the onset of fall triggers a slew of feelings about the upcoming winter. Instead of enjoying this transition time for what it is, there’s a sense of anticipation for frigid temperatures, short days, and all the baggage of upcoming holidays. We have a tendency to replay the past, remembering previous winters when we hated feeling cold and stuck indoors. And, we have a tendency to forecast our future angst, leaving the present moment unacknowledged.

In the midst of this transition time, give space for reflection and gratitude. We’re closing the chapter of summer and are entering a special time worthy of our attention. It’s a practice to notice our inner and outer world, as well as our tendency to live in the past or future. Just by noticing what your pattern is, you are much more likely to make an informed change (if you choose to do so).

As you process your inner and outer realms, remember that art is your ally. It creates a snapshot of how you’re feeling in the moment and serves as a mirror that validates your experience. If and when you have experiences of discomfort as we transition from summer, let art be the container to hold those feelings so you can move on.

Creativity

Creativity

Do you think of yourself as creative? Many people don’t, including people I’ve worked with and witnessed making art. I think the mistake when thinking about creativity is equating it to being artistically gifted. Often, the thought of making art in front of someone feels like shame and fear of judgment. Making art doesn’t feel “productive” and if you’re not good at it, what’s the point? Many of us also have what Brené Brown calls “creativity scars” where someone told you you weren’t a good artist or writer or singer and it changed your relationship with creation forever. (Check out what she’s learned about creativity from her research). 

In art therapy, my intention is to change your relationship with art from fear of judgment and concern with aesthetics to “what do I want to say?” and “what can I learn about myself from this piece?” It’s taking the ego out of art-making so you can be a student of yourself. This means watching your hand choose the purple marker, a color you typically don’t use, or seeing an image of a lion emerge in your rough sketch and wondering what place that has in your life right now.

When I see people make the switch in terms of their relationship with their art, they start to love making art. There’s no more ridiculing how “elementary” those figures look. There’s a sense of something sacred happening within the art and a sense of gratitude for the stillness that often accompanies the depths of creation. There’s a recognition that happens when we see and feel our art mirror our internal world and that is a place where very special things happen.

Coming Home

In June I wrote about an art therapy ritual for travel and with all the summer excursions I wanted to write about coming home. Last month I completed a training on perinatal and postpartum mood disorders in Philadelphia. My husband and infant daughter tagged along, checking off a few milestone for her first uber ride, train ride, and flight. I’ll spare the details of the enormity of the meltdown on the way back to Asheville and just say it was very, very good to be home.

On less literal terms, I think a lot of us relish in the feeling of coming home within ourselves. Some people get that feeling through yoga and meditation. For others it’s reading a favorite book or journaling. And, of course there’s art. The feeling of coming home is about aligning, centering, and grounding. It’s the moment your body naturally takes that deep breath and you feel safe and secure in who you are. It’s like hitting the “reset” button on your mind, body, and spirit so you’re more available to give and receive freely.

It feels good to come home, AND it’s also hard to cultivate the time and energy to build this kind of practice. For me, building in accountability helps. This means scheduling self-care in advance, having a partner to do things with, and creating a budget specifically for things that nourish me (so that I don’t feel guilty spending money).

My hope is that this month’s group offerings serve that purpose in giving the structure, space, and support of making art in a group setting. Finding a practice where you can cultivate the feeling of coming home will be rewarding in ways that won’t just affect you. When you keep coming back home to yourself it affects everyone you meet because that kind of energy is contagious.