Art & wellbeing

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I am a fully qualified and HCPC registered social worker with 20 years of experience in running groups for adult trauma survivors and working with children and young people with trauma histories. I have recently  graduated with distinction from the Institute of Psychiatry, Psychology and Neuroscience with an MSc in Mental Health Studies. My research focus has been on trauma and on the role of creativity in trauma recovery. I gained an Award and Prize for my submission on the connection between mosaic making and mental health (see it here). I am also the co-founder of a not-for-profit organisation, Survivors Voices, that supports survivors of trauma through participatory research, peer-led and self-help initiatives.

One of the key threads of the journey I have made with Glittering Shards is the discovery that making can be a form of meditation or mindfulness practice. I have discovered that my experience of the calming, therapeutic and transformative effects of mosaic is not just my own.  I have lost count of how many times, since 2008,  students have sat in my mosaic studio, picked up mosaic materials for the first time, started to  cut, move, place and stick and literally exhaled the words, “This is so therapeutic…

The other interesting thread from my last 6 years as a mosaic teacher is that around 70% of students attending my evening classes were, quite by chance, people in the helping professions – doctors, nurses, therapists, psychiatrists, mental health workers, family therapists, prison workers, teachers, OT’s.  I am now so used to this that I just smile quietly and expectantly when people talk about what they do. There is clearly something going on in this pattern – perhaps the need to seek out calming, creative and restorative practices for workers in these stressful roles? The stories that emerge from my students as the course progresses are of my studio being seen as “a creative, peaceful refuge in my week“,  “a little oasis of calm” and “my weekly therapy“.

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Certainly, the many evening classes and large group workshops I have run in the last 6 years, alongside some of the larger scale community mosaic projects I have co-ordinated, with groups such as refugees, children in care, children with special needs and ‘at risk’ families, attest to the fact that something in particular happens to our stress levels – to our brains – when we engage our hands, our attention and our efforts in a making something solid and creative.

This possibility of harnessing our own capacity for brain change to positive effect, particularly in relation to childhood trauma, is an area of keen interest for me. The field I am exploring- neuroplasticity – is something I came across over 11 years ago during my work running support groups and creative programmes for abuse survivors.

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Since then, understanding the physiological impact of how trauma and stress shapes the brain and our ‘anxiety’ systems has been a focus of my own study and one which directly informed my work as an advocate of children in care and secure units (eg. the re-traumatisation of children sitting in LAC reviews with their abusers) and as the  Head of Learning & Development in a national charity where I wrote and delivered training programmes on topics such as safeguarding children, effective advocacy & mental health.  In 2000, I co-founded a peer-led survivor organisation through  which we have run survivor support groups, often utilising creative expression (dance, writing, mosaic, visual and textile art). All this was underpinned by a growing understanding that the damage of traumatic experiences is not irreversible: brain change (neuroplasticity) is possible.

In 2009, I took a step back from social work and support work with abuse survivors to raise my young family and focus on my mosaic art. In this time, Glittering Shards – both teaching, commissions and large community art projects- grew and grew allowing me to observe directly the link between my previous learning and the power of creative making. Much of the anecdotal evidence of “mosaic as transformative, practice” which I observed (and experienced) in this period I also found repeated in mosaic books, seminars and mosaic forums. There is clearly something going on when we pick up those tile nippers!

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Through delving into my own creativity (in particular the mosaic form) and then discovering mindfulness practice, I feel as though many seemingly disparate threads are coming together. It goes something like this:

  • Life experiences (especially very early ones) shape our brains (such as our ability to manage stress, anxiety and feelings). This can be both positive (with huge implications on areas such as positive parenting education and managing workplace stress) and negative (eg. early attachment failures, the trauma of war, abuse, disaster etc…)
  • For those with negative experiences, the damaging effect on our brains can deeply affect well being, relationships and daily life (and the lives of loved ones). This can flip into disabling mental ill-health
  • Understanding the neuro-physiological mechanisms by which anxiety, stress, trauma and violence affect us as humans can be liberating. Rather than feeling ‘I am not normal‘, we can reframe our responses  as ‘I am having a normal brain response (eg. post traumatic stress, anxiety disorder, dissociation…) to abnormal situations (eg. violence / trauma)‘.
  • Our brains do not have to remain permanently hard-wired or fixed in these damaging pathways that have been created – they are plastic and changeable.
  • The mechanisms for neuroplasticity (brain change) are slowly being understood by the rapidly evolving neuropsychology community. Part of the research is revealing that ancient contemplative and meditative practices, creative expression,  yoga, movement and writing (amongst other things) can play am important part in well-being and recovery from difficult experiences.
  • Understanding the mechanisms in which seemingly intractable patterns of anxiety, disorder and negative emotional states can be changed is both deeply empowering to individuals and of interest to social policy with respect to areas such as health care.
  • Many tools for brain change are at our own disposal (called self-directed neuroplasticity)
  • Some of the tools lie in our use of focussed attention – ‘We can use our minds to change our brains’ (Rick Hanson, London Insight Seminar, Summer 2014).
  • …and I believe that some of the tools are in our hands – literally – through the use of tangible creative mediums, such as mosaics and other forms of creative making.

I will be posting more about this in the future, including reading lists and research. This page has been quiet since it was formed because I have been undertaking an MSc in Mental Health with a focus of trauma and the use of creativity – an all consuming task! I graduated in November 2016 (with a hard earned distinction!)  and 2017 is the year when I develop Glittering Shards with a focus on mosaics, creative making, wellbeing and trauma recovery.

In the meantime, please do visit the international online exhibition, Behind the Glass, that I curated in December 2015 as part of a submission for my mental health studies. It is a beautiful example of the connection between making and the maker’s emotional and mental wellbeing – and the piece of work was awarded a prize by King’s College London!

I have created a special email list for those of you who want to keep informed. Sign up here. I would love to hear your stories and experiences of the transformative effect of  creative making/mosaics/ mindfulness/writing and other ‘alternative’ approaches to recovering from trauma. You can  email me  or comment in the blog posts.

PS. If you are interesting in learning more,  check out my affiliate link to the Foundations of Well Being course (which I am enrolled on) being run by Rick Hanson, a pioneer in self-directed neuroplasticity.