The Power of Art Therapy

My journey with art therapy began in 2010 after the major natural disaster (earthquake) in Christchurch, New Zealand, where my husband and I were living at the time. Seven years we struggled with an unresolved insurance claim, along with many thousands of other people in Christchurch.

I discovered the power of art therapy first hand. Art became a ‘coping’  mechanism during that long struggle. It takes incredible strength and determination and a survival strategy to get through such a long, arduous and slow process. So what was it that kept me going? In the down times while I was waiting for things to happen, to progress  – I simply had to find ways of distracting myself – distracting my mind from going round and round in circles, keeping me awake at night, leaving me in a permanent state of anxiety and negativity.  Miraculously though, in my distress,  my body seemed to know what to do, seemed to know how to find a way of coping.  I found myself  furiously creating.


So what did I make? I created handmade fabric ‘hope boxes’ and the space around me slowly filled with my ‘hope’ boxes. These boxes represented for me, at that time, my ability to compartmentalize. A place of storage for my ‘resilience’. While I painted, stitched and sewed, my mind calmed, my thoughts focused on what I was doing and the disruptive world of unresolved insurance claims disappeared for the time I was creating. I made artistic representations of the Canterbury Cathedral, of the Cardboard Cathedral, square shapes, hexagonal shapes, pyramids and the list goes on – items that were so removed from the world I then inhabited. These items of colour and texture brought me inner peace, stillness, solace and great hope – hope that one day the situation I was in would be resolved and that I would be able to move on with my life.

Hope Box

In the process of the creation of art I was able to momentarily master, tolerate and minimize the conflict and stress. A healthy form of self distraction. My art work became prolific.  Art therapy is a well known methodology for coping with stress. But my art sprang from no intellectualizing on the matter. Rather it was more of an unconscious process – it was my physical self’s way of surviving, of protecting my mental self.  And no matter how much energy I put into expressing my anger and sadness about the failure of the insurance industry and about what transpired in the City over those years into my art – I could not – my creations remained items of joy and beauty (in my eyes).

Hand painted and embellished Hope Box by Sarah-Alice Miles
Hope Box by Sarah-Alice Miles

In that beauty – came healing. A way of overcoming the terrible dualism in what was a very painful process. It was a way of obliterating the negativity and darkness I experienced throughout those years. I was surprised and amazed by my own output. It flowed through me and out of my fingers. Creation after creation after creation…  And I am sure that it was no accident that so much art appeared in Christchurch City after the earthquakes – all expressions of people coping in whatever way they could – and what a wonderful way to cope.

Hand stitched and machine stitched Geisha by Sarah -Alice Miles
Geisha, hand and machine stitched using gold paper by Sarah-Alice Miles

Why the Gingko Leaf Logo

Did you know that the Gingko tree has been with us for well over 200 million years?! You and I may consider this tree with its remarkable fan-shaped leaves a true survivor.  Over time it has survived all sorts of challenges: multiple ice ages, the impact of ginormous meteors, fires, and even the dinosaurs. It also survives man-initiated disasters. It was the first tree to grow on the devastated cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki after the first atomic bomb was dropped on those two cities.

The tree is not only known for its endurance and its resilience, it is admired for the beautiful colours of its leaves, the greens in Spring and, later in the year, the Autumn golds.

Yes, when their fruit ripens, they smell pretty awful, but that is only temporary. Their leaves and nuts are gathered because they have herbal qualities that are known to enhance the quality of life. Traditional Chinese medicine attributes many uses to its’ extracts. For example Gingko tea is said to counteract memory loss and thus enhance life. You will find many Gingko based remedies on the shelves of most herbal dispensaries.

And so the fascinating story of the Gingko tree and its leaves, continues to intrigue us. Some funeral companies use the symbol of the Gingko leaf to convey the message that life goes on whatever may befall us. Many goldsmiths use the Gingko leaf motive to create beautiful brooches, rings, and necklaces.

I like the use of symbols, because they carry a wisdom of their own. I choose to use the symbol of the Gingko leaf not only because of its beauty but also because of its resilience – to reminds us just how strong people are in the face of adversity. Often we see the inner strength of people shine-through while they struggle to make meaning out of the setbacks in their life, their losses, or their grief. The Gingko leaf reminds me that regardless of the circumstances, we have no reason to lose hope.   

For more beautiful images of the Gingko have a look at the following board:

What is the Difference between Psychotherapy and Counselling?

Despite the fact that the terms Counselling and Psychotherapy are used interchangeably – there are differences between the two.

Counselling, often referred to as ‘talking therapy’ involves a conversation or series of conversations between the counsellor and client. It often focuses on a specific issue presented by the client and involves steps toward attempting to address or solve the issue. The issue is discussed in either the present or the past tense and does not usually involve too much concentration on the role of the client’s past experiences. Despite this counsellors rarely offer advice but instead guide and facilitate the client to discover their own solutions while supporting them through the actions the client has chosen. So Counselling might range from short term solution focused treatment for a client with a specific problem such as improving a relationship or stress related issues or a lifestyle change.

Psychotherapy, like counselling, is based on a healing relationship between a health care provider and the client. Psychotherapy also takes place over a number of sessions though is usually of longer duration than counselling. Some people choose to remain in therapy for several years. Rather than concentrating on particular problems psychotherapy looks at overall patterns, recurrent themes and feelings, and character structure which often entails an exploration of the past and the impact that past has on the present. The aim of psychotherapy is to resolve the underlying issues through self-awareness thus helping to lay a foundation for a better future.  Psychotherapists take into account various aspects of the client including the body, the unconscious, the inner child and the relationship between the client and the therapist.

It is important to realize that counselling and therapy overlap in some areas. Put simply, Counselling tends to look at the problem outside ‘of me’ and psychotherapy looks at the problem ‘inside of me’.

There are many different theoretical approaches to therapy. Gestalt therapy is one such approach.

Gestalt Psychotherapy?

At Gingko Psychotherapy and Counselling I practice predominantly Gestalt Psychotherapy which was developed by Fritz Perls, Laura Perls and Paul Goodman in the 1940s. It is an experiential and humanistic form of therapy. Meaning that the individual is seen as having a distinct priority of needs and drives. Each individual must rely on their own inner wisdom and healing center. And that all people possess free will. The therapists’ approach/ my approach is a non-pathological approach. By that we mean we do not medical-ise the client. This is because in Gestalt therapy the context affects experience, and a person cannot be fully understood without understanding their context. With this in mind no-one can be purely objective —including the therapist (whose experiences and perspectives are also influenced by their own contexts) consequently the therapist accepts the validity and truth of their clients’ experiences. Hence the therapist refrains from interpreting events, focusing only on the immediate, including the physical responses of the client. In this way, gestalt therapy helps people gain a better understanding of how their emotional and physical bodies are connected. Understanding the internal self is the key to understanding actions, reactions, and behaviours. Gestalt therapy helps people take the first steps into this awareness so that they can acknowledge and accept these patterns.

The self is not seen as static but as a continually evolving process that is defined and illuminated by how a person makes contact with their environment. This process, when completed in a healthy and unimpeded way, generally follows a process called the cycle of experience. This cycle is a basic map for how a person becomes aware of a need, mobilizes to meet that need, and achieves satisfaction.

The relationship between the client and therapist is based on unconditional positive regard. Self actualization is the goal i.e. a client is able to take advantage of his or her strengths while also being mindful of their limitations. It is an enlightened maturity characterized by the acceptance of self and the ability to self-assess in a realistic yet positive way. Therapy sessions focus on helping people learn to become more self-aware and to accept and trust in their feelings and experiences to alleviate distress.

The therapist uses creativity in their approach, depending on context and each client’s personality.

Do I have to make a choice between counselling and psychotherapy?

When you come to Gingko Psychotherapy and Counselling do not worry about choosing between Counselling and Psychotherapy. What is important for you the client is to ensure that there is a good fit between yourself and the therapist. Research indicates that the connection between the counsellor/therapist and the client is the most important factor in producing successful outcomes.

In making a distinction between counselling and psychotherapy: If you have a single problem or issue you wish to have some additional feedback on – then counselling may be more appropriate. If you have noticed a pattern of problems or concerns that continue to surface and provide difficulty in your life – then consider psychotherapy. Do you want to address an earlier trauma or a family pattern that is affecting the way you feel – then consider psychotherapy.

The therapist will ultimately determine which approach to use.

Entering into any form of counselling requires a firm commitment on the part of the client as well as the therapist- and open communication is the key to success.

Lawyers Seeking Therapy or Counselling

Becoming a lawyer took hard work – it is not for the faint of heart or mind. However those skills that enable you to become a lawyer often work heavily against you in creating a happy and healthy life. That single minded focus does not provide for a full and enriching life.

I spent more than a decade working in London and Amsterdam in the investment banking and insurance world as a lawyer and experienced the effects of corporate life from the inside. These experiences led ultimately to me asking some profound questions around the work I was doing and the impact that work was having on myself and my environs. The work began to fundamentally shape me and I did not like what I was seeing. Let’s face it, legal practice asks of you often to suppress feelings and sometimes even your humanity. It was at this point in my career that I began seeing a therapist of my own. The questions and the answers I found led me ultimately to making the enormous decision to change my career.

As a psychotherapist, mediator and lawyer I am well placed to understand the everyday challenges and difficulties faced by members of the legal profession. Working as a member of the legal profession is a stressful and an often misunderstood vocation. Coping with stress is vitally important to maintaining a healthy and happy life. Unfortunately the work life balance remains a mystery to many lawyers. Lawyers have higher rates of depression, anxiety, stress and addiction issues than the general population. This page is created to assist those of you in the profession to understand why you might benefit from psychotherapy.

The very nature of the legal profession makes it difficult for the lawyer to step back and ask for help – when your everyday life involves creating a perception of togetherness, strength, having the ‘smarts’ and being successful. At law school we are not taught how to look after ourselves while we carry out this sometimes very demanding work. Talking with someone who knows what you are experiencing can help to rebalance that imbalance.

Lawyers tend to be distrustful – it is an unfortunate and misunderstood side-effect of our training. We also tend to be risk adverse, bracing ourselves for the next attack – after all it’s our head on the block when something goes wrong. We are supposed to pre-think everything, ensure that nothing has been left out and be constantly vigilant. Lawyers often work in intensely competitive environments. Law firms consume your life, long hours, unrealistic time frames and expectations. It is hard for others to understand the nature of this kind of environment.

Here are some of the reasons why a lawyer might use the services of a psychotherapist:

Therapy can:

  • Provide balance to the often negative and unsupportive environment you work in;
  • Assist you in your ability to empathize, relate to and understand the people you work with as well as your clients – increase your emotional intelligence;
  • Teach you to become more person centered than problem centered which will ultimately will improve your legal practice. Lawyers often care more about the facts and principles of a case than they do about the people they are representing. Lawyers are naturally oriented toward fact and not feeling;
  • Teach you to have more insight in how you are responding to disappointed, angry or frustrated clients or opposing counsel. Finding new ways of coping and responding in a healthy way;
  • Teach you to better deal with the fatigue that results from the constant attention to minutia of documentation and proceedings which in turn can lead to anxiety and depression. Learn how to better deal with this issue;
  • Improve your self-perception, your self-expression, your stress management, and decision making which will in turn help interpersonal relationships;
  • Clarify and resolve the existential problems that lawyers are often faced with such as your role in society and one’s loss of the idealism that led you to the legal profession in the first instance;
  • Help you leave your work at the office and find new ways of engaging in your work;
  • Develop an ability to feel less of a need to react with anger. The process of constantly defending or attacking has a devastating effect on the human psyche. Psychotherapy will help you to develop greater resilience to constant battle fatigue;
  • Act as a sounding board to assist you in helping you deal more reasonably and fairly with your colleagues and managerial dilemmas;
  • Help to prevent the generalized state of anxiety and suspicious-ness that lawyers more often than not experience;
  • Teach you to take care of yourself on a physical and emotional level by learning to blow off steam and find other mental outlets – your old defense mechanisms are not enough;
  • Assist you to reconnect with families by creating more balance between work and life outside work and deal with the feelings of guilt around not often not being there;
  • Allow you to share your concerns and problems with a professional rather than burdening your family or simply not sharing the load at all;
  • Stay off the common addictions lawyers are prone too: alcohol and cocaine abuse and the resulting effects on family life often leading to divorce;
  • Better understand your self-doubt and the questions around whether you’re ‘good enough’.
  • Female lawyers often face unique stresses over and above those which are inherent in practising law. Therapy provides you with a secure place to vent the frustrations and concerns around glass ceiling issues and any sense of discrimination you may feel.

Don’t wait until things get on top of you!

Call for a private and confidential consultation.