Stabilizing Clients at the Clay Field

Stabilization: The process of making the client feel secure within sessions.

Stabilization: The process of making the client feel secure within sessions.

Pierre Janet, a pioneering French psychologist who lived over 100 years ago, developed a simple structure for trauma therapy that is still valid today. He defined three treatment phases: stabilization, trauma exploration and integration.

If we look at Work at the Clay Field, stabilization is crucial at the beginning of every session in order to create a safe environment for the client. Safety, however, becomes crucial especially when clients are afraid, dissociated or in metabolic shutdown. Here the therapist has to intervene, in order to prevent re-traumatisation. Certain client groups will traverse the beginning stage of a session with confidence; they trust the therapist, feel comfortable in the setting and require only greeting rituals and some orientation points before they are ready to begin. Others, however, may require several sessions of building resources, or even months and years of stabilization. Without internal and external support, they will be easily overwhelmed by the multiple layers of complex trauma issues in their biography. Children sitting down at the clay field asking: “What do you want me to make?” are actually saying: “I am scared.” Because children feeling safe sitting in front of a box filled with clay, will know what they want to do.

There are various ways of facilitating safety and stability in this setting. Some apply to all psychotherapies, others are specific for Clay Field Therapy: 

  • Orientation through checking out the therapist’s work space, to take note of where the escape routes are, or simply where things are: the location of the sink and the art materials. Highly traumatized individuals are so locked into their inner world, they need to activate their exteroceptors first as a resource. This orientation might also include focal points that delight the client, be this the view from the window or a painting in the therapist’s office. Such a focal point becomes a resource whenever too much inner activation threatens to overwhelm them. Clients can be surprisingly clear as to what works or does not work for them as a resource. I remember one woman who was adamant that the grass moving in the wind outside my window was too activating, but the trunk of a large tree was solid enough to give her a feeling of stability. 

    In Alice Springs we found that Aboriginal boys from the surrounding camps, who lived in a chaotic, highly unsafe environment, would never come to a session alone, but only, if at least two or three of their friends could attend as well. In their experience adults were not safe, only their friends were. All of them needed to sit close to an open door so they knew they could escape any minute if need be. However, they all enjoyed their clay field sessions, each in this case having a field on their own.

  • Art therapy exercises such as a clay sculpture of the client’s safe place, a strength tree, a created helper figure like a guardian angel or superman can offer an alternative safe world, if trauma exploration gets too stressful. (Fig 1-6) These can be referred to, if the client needs to calm down.

  • Spiritual resources can offer comfort such as holding a crystal or saying a prayer.

  • Physical resources may involve cushions to hold in front of the body, or stuffed behind the back or on the sides for protection and to hug. Large scarfs can be tied around the chest putting light pressure on the upper arms. Like swaddling a baby, this can give a sense of being held together, when someone feels like falling apart.

  • AT THE CLAY FIELD three key resources are on offer.

  • The water needs to be warm and clean. It is not only there to wash hands or to add into the clay, but it can also serve as a “relaxing bath” for cold and frozen hands, when clients feel anxious and tense. Warm water can be an important sensory resource, far less threatening than the clay may appear to be. Especially clients with perinatal needs sometimes spend several sessions with their hands submerged in water until they are finally ready and able to touch the clay. (Fig 7 and 8)

  • The box offers firm structure. It is not pliable, sticky and forever changing like the clay. The edges of the box offer a boundary, solid orientation and something that lasts. All the clay can be evicted from the field, but the box may become symbolic of the one that survived it all. It may even take on an ‘eternal’ quality.

  • Sitting back allows distancing. Especially for clients, who experienced sexual abuse, where they were forced to like revolting touching and being touched. If an inexperienced therapist is too encouraging to touch the clay, it might be severely retraumatizing for this client group. To have the option to sit back, move away from the field, push the field away, or even cover it with a cloth in order to state a firm “No!” can be profoundly empowering.

  • IN THE CLAY FIELD a valuable resource is to put the elbows into the field and support the head with the hands. This creates a stabilizing triangle, which allows particularly tense and contracted clients to be able to relax. It is as if the spine can “hang down” and I no longer need to hold myself together. The reverse applies to collapsed clients, who lack structure. They benefit from leaning with their underarms onto the field (Fig 9), sometimes even resting their head on the field, experiencing that this relationship with the clay field on offer can be supportive. Applying pressure onto the clay field (Fig 10) encourages embodiment and empowerment. Adults can do this with their elbows, children may stand up and make imprints into the clay. Applying pressure to the extent that the hands or elbows leave a mark in the clay is only possible, if the muscles, joints and skeletal build are being aligned. To do so encourages awareness and coordination of the whole body, which can be deeply satisfying and empowering.

 Awareness of these resources will assist clients to titrate their experiences so they can keep them within a tolerable range. It is quite acceptable to interrupt a client, if there is too much activation. Initially it will be the therapist’s job to pace the recall of traumatic events until the client’s nervous system has learnt to self-regulate.

 “The role of the therapist is to facilitate self-awareness and self-regulation, rather than to witness and interpret the trauma. Therapy involves working with sensations and action tendencies in order to discover new ways of orienting and moving through the world.”

Ogden 2006) van der Kolk in Ogden, Trauma and the body p. XXIV

Announcing the new ISAT Online learning Resource for Professional Development.

Masterclass: Work at the Clayfield®

Presented by Prof Heinz Deuser| Facilitated by Cornelia Elbrecht

Available from July 15th 2019.

The Masterclass is of 18 hours duration, German-spoken and translated into English comprising seminars and several demonstrations of Clay Field sessions facilitated by Prof Heinz Deuser.