Sandtray therapy is a valued medium I use to help young adults who are trauma survivors and/or are struggling with addiction. At the Claudia Black Young Adult Center I use it with clients with early childhood complex trauma, those with attachment disruption often associated with adoption histories, those with dissociative symptoms, or major traumatic events such as sexual assaults, nightmares, and polarities around addiction. Certainly, family dynamics can be explored with this medium. For the client who is showing resistance, has poor verbal skills and/or social relational difficulties it is really useful as the sand tray becomes both a visual and a sensory tactile experience creating the ability to go deeper within and regain an internalized sense of control and safety.
The tray is a blank canvas in which the clients’ world is displayed through the use of miniature figures, which could be mythical protective figures, spiritual figures, family figures, animals, vegetation, fences, bridges, and addiction paraphernalia. The client leads the session, mindfully arranges the figures and then adds words to the story. The agitated lower brain is being calmed through tactile stimuli which are interpreted by the limbic system. This results in left and right brain integration, new neural pathways, greater nervous system regulation, less anxiety, and a stronger sense of safety.
The very touch of the sand activates the brain in that sensations travel to the prefrontal cortex which makes sense of tactile input. Both the sand and the blue color in the box trigger neurotransmitters to calm the entire body, lowering blood pressure, slowing down pulse rate and providing a greater ability to handle threatening material. All of this lessens the flight/fight response that the client is often experiencing on an ongoing basis.
Let me tell you about Emily who was attacked while hiking, raped by three men and left in the woods. Her life fell apart. She couldn’t handle the daily functions of life let alone perform at work or engage with others socially. Using the sand tray was key to beginning her trauma work. Her hypervigilance and over-arousal state were so significant she couldn’t sit with herself or with others. She was over-aroused by the tools of EMDR and was extremely dissociative.
The first session is all about creating a safe scene of what it would be like to have the sensation of calmness and safety. Safe scenes in the tray will be filled with protectors, helpers, and resources. When Emily was done, we took a picture of her sand tray, and she was to post it in her room, and also carry a picture of it wherever she was on campus. I wanted her to have this sense of safety available to her at all times.
In future sessions, once she felt that safety was on board, she started to slowly bring in details of the event to the sand tray. While she cannot change the experience, with the metaphorical figures, she can create a new internal story building resilience and empowerment. By projecting onto the tray, Emily also creates enough therapeutic distance to move into a deeper emotional state where it then becomes tolerable to release stored body energy. It is here I now use the tools of somatic experiencing therapy to release the energy, weaving somatic experiencing work with sand tray.
After four sessions using the sand tray, Emily no longer avoided eye contact, held her head down, or looked defeated and scared. Her body now had a stance of power. New beliefs about the event and herself emerged as she articulated “it’s over now…I can move forward….I am okay.” Given the nature of the trauma, Emily would need continued therapy, but she now has enough resources on board to move forward with more trauma work and the ability to use a wider range of mediums.
As a therapist being able to use mediums such as the Sandtray with trauma survivors, I get to witness the miracles of transformation.
Heidi Kaminski, MSW, LCSW is a trauma therapist at the Claudia Black Young Adult Center. While trauma-informed care is pervasive throughout the program in groups and individual sessions, clients see Ms. Kaminski specifically when they can benefit from EMDR, SE, and focused work on traumas utilizing mediums such as the Sandtray and Expressive Arts. Heidi Kaminski also has a private practice located in Peoria, Arizona.