Brain Science and Updates From the Field

New group activity adds color to therapy

Monday, January 25, 2016

Depending on one’s frame of mind, a blank canvas can represent unlimited potential or feel incredibly intimidating.

Properly framing that mindset is the function of Counseling in Colors, an activity that integrates painting with group therapy at Stairways Behavioral Health’s Residential Treatment Facility for Adults.

“I had been to a Cocktails and Colors event and thought about how I could put a CBT twist on it,” Jennifer LaRoche, a therapist at RTFA, said.

CBT — Cognitive Behavioral Therapy — is a form of psychotherapy predicated on the idea that thoughts, or cognitions, have a direct effect on feelings and behaviors and that if negative and distorted thoughts can be changed, so too can the effects that accompany them.

LaRoche consulted Josh Staszewski, rehabilitation coordinator at RTFA and amateur artist who studied art in college. He determined that the process of painting could help the clients challenge negative thoughts that occur automatically.

“It was a method to apply CBT to real life situations and address thought distortions in a way that we can use painting to practice proper cognitive techniques,” LaRoche said.

LaRoche and Staszewski came up with a format in which they could elicit distorted thoughts by setting up paint stations for clients before they arrive for group therapy. When 15 clients enter the room, so too do their feelings of insecurity about sitting at an easel and applying paint to a canvas.

“Everything is set up when they walk in and you instantly can see the fear in their eyes and we ask ‘how do you feel?’” Staszewski said.

Clients typically respond with thoughts of doubt and fear about their ability to complete a painting. These voiced thoughts are written on the board.

Staszewski then shows a scene as an example and prompts the clients on what object to paint. The group painted a pumpkin in November and a snowman for December.

The caveat? Each client is given free rein on how their work is depicted.

“I’ll set some guidelines as what to paint but that is the only criteria,” Staszewski said. “They ask questions and I’ll give guidance but I won’t touch the painting because that’s theirs.”

Both sessions have lasted between two to three hours, giving everyone the chance to put the desired touch and detail on their works.

And although clients typically have minimal or no experience, whatever struggles they experience behind the easels become reason to connect and share ideas with the other new artists, who include a handful of staff members with a brush in hand.

“Staff are much in the same boat as the clients who haven’t painted before and it makes them appear vulnerable and allows us to connect and be supportive of each other,” she said. “That opens up connections because we talk about how everyone has distortions.”

After everyone has finished painting, the group revisits the automatic thoughts that were posted to the board before the class and identifies how they were distorted and misleading.

At the end of the session, clients have not only completed an exercise in how to adjust their thought processes, but also have a visual representation of the work they have completed, which they display or give as gifts. In addition, they will also walk away having learned a valuable coping skill to use in moments of need, according to Staszewski.

“It opens up other discussions about ‘this is how you can step away from stress for a short period and put your effort into something else,” he said. “When they’re getting stressed, it gives them an idea that ‘hey, I can get a cheap camera and start taking photographs or use a coloring book to relax.'”

LaRoche and Staszewski plan to hold the next Counseling in Colors session sometime in February, though the lessons the session promotes can be applied to any canvas in life.

“We use this in a way to let them see how they can do this with their thoughts all of the time,” LaRoche said.


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