This blog is all about my wonderful colleague, and Limitless Wellness’s team member, Chrissandra Unger. Chrissandra’s passion for helping others and her rich experience in the Arts, brought her all the way to Sweden to obtain her Masters in Expressive Arts Therapy and Psychology.
As a team of counsellors working on Vancouver Island, we truly pride ourselves on being a well rounded and collaborative team of helpers. We understand the need to cater to the many ways in which our clients find healing, and we are just so lucky to have Chrissandra with us.
So that our clients and community can understand a little more about Chrissandra’s work, I (Sarah) sat down with her to ask some questions, and to be in her uplifting yet calming space, one that invites the self to express freely.
So here we go.
Sarah: So I want to share with everyone a bit more about your specific counselling background and approach. When we chatted recently you said something really beautiful about how adults need to play too. Could you talk a bit more about that?
Chrissandra: Yes for sure, great question!
As adults, we can get so wrapped up in our day-to-day activities that we forget to play or even how to. Kids never forget, that’s part of their learning process and it is pure instinct. We need to remember that play comes in many forms and when embraced we can restore our life balance and find new invigoration that was dormant.
Play involves the use of our right brain hemisphere, which is sadly underused in our society today. We are left brain heavy and often overly “heady”. Our right brain craves novelty and when we play, we shift between our left and right hemispheres, activating neural pathways and communication between these divided hemispheres.
This kind of therapy invites healing of implicit memories from our stored early trauma experiences. Through play, art, movement and sound, we begin to open up space and allow these implicit traumatic memories to loosen and move through our emotional body. There’s a natural release of serotonin and endorphins as this is experienced.
As a child, play may not have been safe for this now adult person. Perhaps there was a lot of work to do, or a sick parent or sibling- there was no time to play, or it could have been forbidden especially as we grew up. I guide adults to invite a more playful approach to experiencing life, this could also be through language.
Using both of our hands in drawing stimulates bilateral activity in the brain, which is similar to some methods in the EMDR modality used for treating trauma. The arts also normalise stress hormones, lowers cortisol, lengthens and strengthens brain cell connections, which can fade as we age.
“We don’t stop playing because we grow old; we grow old because we stop playing.” – George Bernard Shaw
It’s all about the process of making, not the product, as we have been so conditioned to expect from ourselves. Process reveals something to us as the image or sound begins to take shape. The end result will always reveal itself, but we need to allow it to appear as it is appearing and let go of trying to control it. If you squeeze your fists right now, you can feel how uncomfortable it is after a few minutes – this is the same as how we live our daily lives, holding our breath, tightening our muscles, just getting through our days and mini (or major) crises.
Sarah: That is a wonderful description of your work. I love that it is all about the invitation to clients to bring their body into the session. When I was there with you, I was immediately drawn to certain objects and the idea of being able to sit and just smush putty in my hands as we talked, was so calming.
Sarah: So, in your counselling work with adults how do you incorporate Expressive Arts into a session? What can that look like?
Chrissandra: And what IS expressive arts therapy (EXA)? It’s a newer modality that is so much more than just art making. Many people can become tense when the word “art” is spoken – this can be a “verboten” moment!
Expressive Arts Therapy is a multi-faceted way of expressing oneself. It doesn’t have to be painting or drawing, it can incorporate many types of arts, generally what the client may find more inspiring, “micro-dosing” if that’s what’s called for. We begin with small invitations- explorations of patterns that can be arising in our lives, notice and bring attention to them through a gesture or a sound, etc.- and only if the client is willing and curious. Language and words are definitely part of the arts and the process of creating.
I like to invite our child-likeness into the session, which can begin with sandtray play. There’s nothing to make, only re-make with miniature objects on the shelves. Whether it’s creating something of beauty (which is very nourishing), or subconsciously creating something that sheds light on an issue we are facing. We are then able to re-create and change the story to make a new ending (which is reparative).
It starts with following what the client is “showing or telling” me. For example, this could be with a specific movement of their hand when they mention someone’s name. Our body speaks even when we are unaware of it.
Sarah: What do you say if a client says something like; “Oh I can’t play music or paint, I’m just not expressive that way!”?
Chrissandra: Nothing is forced upon the client but I do like to challenge that belief of “I’m not good at ______ .” Someone (i.e. a teacher, a parent, our culture) may have instilled in them a level of self judgement that is restricting constricting the client. Maybe not everyone’s an artist, but everyone is creative in some way, and engaging that part of us can allow so much more healing. As you were drawn to just sitting and playing with putty, that’s often what is for some clients, whereas others are drawn to many other items in the room.
Most of us have sung in the car or danced in our living rooms – we love to do it, it’s the shame or embarrassment that stops us. We’re dealing with old wounds, so it is a gentle lesson in self compassion.
We humans dream, so we are automatically creative! We gradually learn to let go of expectations on the finished piece, the things we can’t control. Again, this is a practice of self compassion and an invitation to allow more of the self to emerge.
Creativity is not about writing a best seller or painting a masterpiece. It’s about cultivating an authentic approach to life that is uniquely your own. We combine different things to make new things, things that no one has seen or made before- just fun stuff- maybe stuff that we rip up, step on or burn!
Sarah: Why do you think it is that sometimes clients need more than talk therapy?
Chrissandra: Well, we do need talk therapy and I definitely use this method. We know that there are more ways to communicate and express ourselves than only through words. Talking keeps us in our heads and I work to invite the body and brain to begin communicating with each other.
Talking frames the session. For example, talking about what the stuck issue is; then doing something different/creative; then after, talking about what happened, or what was experienced. Talk therapy is considered a “top-down” approach. Expressive arts, by its very nature, is a “bottom-up” approach.
The brain likes to stay on the hamster wheel – it feels safe there and it thinks it will come up with a solution, but we all know how insane that can feel when the solution sometimes does not come! By doing something different, we invite change and possibility for growth. We begin to see our situation in a new light and there is movement forward – out of our stuck-ness. Adults can arrive at a cognitive solution after moving away from the problem.
Expressive arts with sound, making things, moving, listening, writing and talking are a whole-brain activity.
Sarah: There is so much happening between the worlds of Psychotherapy and Neuroscience. We are finally seeing how science is catching up with what many healers and therapists have known for centuries; our minds and our bodies are connected. Without being too intrusive on my part, maybe you can share how Expressive Arts Therapy has helped you in your own life?
Chrissandra: This research is exciting, isn’t it? I love how we’re saying the same things or similar but in different languages so to speak.
Playing piano during my teenage-angst years grounded me in my body. It gave me a container in which to put my strong emotions. Also, singing to the songs that I liked on the radio (before streaming was a thing!) also gave me the sense of belonging – like I wasn’t the misfit I believed myself to be.
In my early 20s, I was in an accident where I was the pedestrian hit by a truck that went through a red light in downtown Vancouver. I sustained head injuries in a cognitive part of my brain that made everything hard to compute – things got mixed up or were backwards. For example, it took a few seconds for my brain to send signals to my hands after reading a page of piano music, then to play it. Each hand wanted to do the job of the other! So I began painting… anything. Old chairs, clocks, canvases, sticks, etc. It felt so freeing.
In time, my brain recovered from the injury and I could now do the things that had been so physically challenging for me. Emotions were guided and held by the arts and through my own therapy journey. In later years, I decided to go back to school to get my Masters in Expressive Arts Therapy and Psychology. I think my journey in life was always leading me to this role.
Life is a process, just like the arts. We make mistakes and we learn how to work with them as we are now and going forward.
Sarah: Finally Chrissandra, tell me some feedback you have received from the wonderful clients you work with?
Chrissandra: I’ve had a few clients tell me that they specifically chose me because they’ve tried talk therapy and wanted to try something different. Everyone is different and what fits one person may not be the best for another. I also had a client recently tell me how she did her research before choosing Limitless Wellness and it was the team approach we take that made her feel this was where she would feel safe.
Below is a short compilation video taken from my time exploration Chrissandra’s space with her. I was invited to lay under the piano as Chrissandra played and I could have stayed there forever!.