Working with Trauma through Sand Therapy

“We were the third house from the corner,” she said, as her finger traced a line in the sand. “These bushes were my hideout,” she added with a proud smile, pointing to a handful of plastic leaves piled up right next to the place her finger had stopped.

Moments before, I had mostly been stuck in my own head, trying just to focus and override the internal critic which I still struggle with even after two years of immersion in this remarkable approach to therapy. The ‘houses’ had been three small tin facades lying randomly in a tray of sand—candle holders I’d picked up at Ikea because they seemed like the best non-specific representations of buildings I had yet come across while searching for symbols. The plastic leaves had almost been an afterthought for my collection. Even so, her two short statements brought everything to life and instantly grabbed my full attention. Sarah[1] was deeply immersed in her sand scene and clearly re-imagining a very significant previous life experience.

Sample sand session with chosen symbols

In our work together, it had taken time to gain any sense at all of what might be underlying the severe bouts of anxiety and body tremors that had been afflicting Sarah for decades. “I told myself I was not going to let this stuff affect me,” she had said repeatedly. She reported having simply stopped thinking about these memories when she was in her late teens and seemed still at least half convinced that it was possible to prevent such significant developmental events from influencing her ongoing engagement with life.

The problem with believing anxiety can be controlled through will power is that our brains are complex and organic networks which utilize prior experience to predict potentially effective ways for engaging with the present world. Early experiences essentially become the lenses through which all future events are perceived and processed.

The power and beauty of sand therapy is that it can provide a safe medium through which traumatic events can be revisited and perceived in a new way. The child memory can be externalized, and the individual can suddenly find themselves capable of perceiving traumatic experience in a less triggering and more wholistic manner. As an observer, helplessness and terror can be balanced with awareness of strength, ingenuity and courage. Severe limits and instinctual reactions that may have once been required to protect the self from threat and to survive the trauma can be evaluated and/or changed. Self-blame, judgment and shame can be balanced with understanding, compassion, empathy and self-acceptance.

Having externalized the traumatic memories into the sand scene, they are updated with new neuronal connections so that future events which trigger synapses in these networks likewise trigger the healing and more wholistic experiences as well. The internalized terror and pain of having to hide from a raging and abusive caregiver is balanced with the awareness and pride of having had the resourcefulness and fortitude to find and maintain an effective hiding place even as a small and dependent child. In short, effective therapy does not offer a cure (we can’t overwrite or entirely eradicate our prior experience), but it can greatly expand our self-awareness and provide a tremendously healing perspective and balance to the traumatic emotional response whenever it is triggered in present life.

Sand therapy can also be used to build resilience through exploring and reliving positive experiences and provide a medium for engaging the mind’s natural creative process, opening immeasurable new potential for problem solving. It is a powerful approach that is highly effective with clients of all ages. And, while effective and ethical use of it requires extensive specialized training and a robust personal immersion in the process by the clinician, it can offer incomparable safety because much of the process takes place internally, and it is not important for the therapist to even know the particulars of the client’s experience. It is also especially adaptive and applicable cross-culturally because, while often containing some difference in relevance, many (if not most) symbols are universal and much of the process supersedes language. Just as the strains of a familiar song or the scent of a favorite food can bring back vivid memories and emotions, the connection we feel toward the symbols we select ties into the complex neuronal networks of our most foundational prior experiences. The tin facades become a familiar neighborhood, the finger in the sand a long-forgotten street, and a pile of plastic leaves, the bushes where we once found refuge.

[1] Pseudonym – actual name and personal information withheld to protect client’s privacy

Tim Mewmaw is a psychotherapist practicing at the Annapolis Counseling Center. He offers sand therapy amongst other traditional and expressive modalities through his practice in Annapolis, MD. More information can be found via his profile on Psychology Today, and he can be reached via:

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