How to Improve Your Therapy Using Play and Emotion

Why Good Therapy Means Tapping Into the Client's Emotional Brain

Courtney Armstrong

It’s no secret that therapists have become enamored with brain science over the past 15 years. In fact, we’re so “brain-crazed” it seems you can’t go to a clinical workshop these days without having the presenter regularly use terms like amygdala, hippocampus, or neuroplasticity, once thought to be arcane. Many therapists even think that explaining clients’ brains to them is an essential feature of therapy, as if a basic understanding of brain science is enough to promote real change in their everyday lives. Ironically, this approach is contrary to the one clinical insight from brain research that’s most important to effective therapy: human behavior and motivation are driven mostly by the emotional brain---the brain centers that mediate “primitive” emotions and instincts and respond to sensory-rich experiences, not intellectual insights.

How many times have you surprised yourself by jumping at the scary part of a movie or shouting something hurtful at someone you love when you feel angry? You know the villain in the movie isn’t real and the insult to your loved one will only make things worse, but your emotional brain ignores this logic and leaps into action. In essence, the emotional brain is our unconscious mind, and scientists estimate that it controls about 95 percent of what we do, think, and feel at any given moment.

All of this is now brain science 101, yet therapists, who ought to know better, are still trying to appeal to the cognitive mind---much as Freud did---with quiet, rational conversation, largely ignoring the importance of creating felt emotional experiences for clients. That isn’t to say the standard methods of interpreting, reflecting back, validating, reassuring, instructing, and giving homework aren’t useful; they just aren’t enough to create that felt experience. It takes more than logic, kindness, and support to spark the emotional brain to create new neural pathways to fire up the healing process.

The Art of Evoking Emotion

If you observe any of the great therapists of our time, you’ll see that, regardless of their theoretical approach, one thing they have in common is the ability to make a charismatic connection with clients and evoke meaningful emotional experiences in them.

Until six years ago, I was good at treating clients with sincere, nonjudgmental empathy, having been trained traditionally in cognitive-behavioral therapy. My practice was busy, and my clients liked me. They’d gain insight and try out the skills I’d suggested. They’d feel better for a time, but the changes wouldn’t stick unless we’d meet for months and they’d make a lot of effort to apply the insights between sessions. In short, my results weren’t remarkable. Then I learned to show up for my clients in a more creative, provocative way.

I’d heard that Jon Connelly’s approach, Rapid Resolution Therapy, was especially effective for clearing the negative impact of trauma in just one to three sessions, and I was impressed by a demonstration video of his work with a World Trade Center bombing survivor on his website. When I attended my first training, in Orlando, Florida, I expected to hear about new scientific breakthroughs and pick up a few innovative techniques. I didn’t expect to witness a theatrical performance by a spellbinding 1960s peace-activist-turned-therapist, who showed up as a mix of artist, actor, stand-up comedian, and evangelical healer. His use of poetic words and dramatic performance art in his trainings---and with his clients---convinced me that doing effective therapy is less about the intervention we employ and more about how we use ourselves in the session to create a therapeutic experience. Connelly taught me not to get overly focused on why the client developed the problem, but to ask myself instead, What’s my intention for this client? What’s the effect I want our interaction to have?

Connelly had a highly developed skill for conjuring up experiences that completely flipped the horrendous impact of a traumatic event into something transformative and healing. For example, one woman he assisted was haunted by a childhood encounter with a neighbor she’d seen peering through her bathroom window as she stepped out of the shower. She couldn’t get over the fact that she’d frozen in horror, feeling completely immobilized until he dropped down from the window and left. Connelly tilted his head back, grinned broadly, and then looked directly into her eyes, saying, “He knew you saw him. You caught him. You didn’t move around in front of him. You captured him with your eyes and held him until he ran away. Do you think that’s what a Peeping Tom is interested in?”

She thought for a moment and said, “No, it’s the opposite.”

Connelly widened his eyes and emphatically nodded his head. “Yeah, it’s totally opposite!” he said. Then he shimmied his shoulders, winked at her, and wiggled around in his chair as he continued. “A Peeping Tom wants motion. I mean, the more someone wiggles, the better, right? He ain’t looking to see someone be a statue!”

The woman dropped her tense shoulders, laughed, and replied, “Yes, you’re right. I hadn’t thought of it that way, but it’s true. It makes sense.”

I realized it wasn’t just Connelly’s clever reinterpretation that moved this woman. It was the way he interacted with her, lightening the mood as he wiggled his eyebrows, danced around in his chair, and confidently invited the client to entertain this alternative view with him.

Now I know that we open up new possibilities for our clients not just with the tools we use or the words we say, but with how we say the words and use the tools.

The Power of Play

It isn’t enough to be a kind, supportive guide on clients’ journeys. We have to be a provocative guide, creating experiences that trigger their curiosity and desire to know more. The experiences we create have to go beyond the intellect to reach a deeply human place, prompting clients to believe they can relate to themselves and the world in a new way. Following this approach, good therapy can often look like performance art, rather than a rational discussion. But let’s face it: to get the emotional brain to pay attention to what we’re saying and to keep clients coming back to our offices, the therapy experience has to be at least twice as interesting as the problem.

This blog is excerpted from “Creating Adventure and Play in Therapy." Want to read more articles like this? Subscribe to Psychotherapy Networker Today!

Topic: Professional Development | Mindfulness | Creativity

Tags: amygdala | Anxiety | brain science | Courtney Armstrong | depression | emotion | emotional brain | psychotherapy | therapist | therapy | therapy strategies | networker | connection | change | motivation | Courtney Armstrong LPC

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