Originally posted February 19, 2019.
Expressive Art: Creating Your Lifeline
The expressive art exercise called LifeLine is a positive tool in the therapy room. Getting an overview of your life can be a first step step towards self understanding and self acceptance.
David came in to see me because he had experienced a panic attack at work. The intensity of the physical and emotional feelings scared him.
The panic attack had occurred when he went into a deep closet to retrieve some files about a case he was working on.
Someone walked by and pushed the door closed, just to get it out of the way of hallway path; it wasn’t locked. When the door closed, even though the light was still on, David felt closed in and trapped.
Alarmed, he pulled back from the files and tried to take a deep breath. But he was gasping for breath. His chest felt tight, his arms tingly and his field of vision narrowed. It was like he was in a tunnel with limited vision and hearing. He had an eerie feeling of being outside of his own body and he was flooded with fear and anxiety. He then thought about what an over-reaction this all was and got angry at himself and embarrassed. He didn’t want anyone to know. All of this happened in literally seconds. At the same time, he quickly pushed the closet door open and felt instantly better. His hear rate slowed, the sweating came down as he recovered from the fear reaction.
As we discussed this incident, I wondered if this was an isolated incident. Were there others? How was he feeling in general lately? David shared he was having alot of generalized anxiety and trouble falling asleep and he was experiencing feelings of worthlessness. He said he couldn’t understand why he was having so much trouble lately.
He started to tell me about how he was hit by a car while crossing the street about six months ago. He was pushed over and his arm was hurt, somehow her managed not break anything. But he was laying on the ground, knocked out, with a concussion. He remembers feeling very afraid and how his body reacted with a strong fear reaction. There was a jolt of adrenaline and his stomach dropped out. He said he didn’t remember much else. He started to become very distressed when we talked about the accident. He didn’t see how it was relevant to how he was feeling in the closet.
I discussed in general how a cumulative burden of lifetime adversities impacts the severity of mental health symptoms. And then, a single incident trauma, such as a car accident, can set off a more severe generalized reaction in the nervous system. So the nervous system set point is already set up high, but then gets set up even higher. The organism is on high alert all the time. Thus, anxiety and fear reactions are set off by mundane occurrences.
David talked about how there was alot of financial stress in his childhood, his parents’ relationship was volatile; his father left the house multiple times when he was young. David said he was quiet and shy when he was young and he was bullied, teased and called names. Things got better in high school. In his twenties, he was at a shopping mall where there was a shooting. There was pandemonium as everyone ran for the exits.
And then, he was fired from his job as he was unable to concentrate on his work after that. He was fearful he’d be evicted from his apartment. He then had no health benefits and lived in fear of getting sick without his insurance. He worked as a waiter to get his rent money together until he found another job.
David had a long and complex history, as most of my clients. In order to help him with the idea of the cumulative emotional impact of all his life events, I had David draw a timeline with me.
As we talked about his life experiences, we used different colors for different events and emotions. We tried to get some approximate ages and dates included, for reference. David looked at his experiences and more and more memories and emotions came up. He looked in wonder at the complexity of his life. He began to realize he was the sum total of all of his experiences. It helped him see that his panic attacks were fed by a long line of unprocessed emotional material.
Importantly, he took the first step towards self understanding and self acceptance and backing off the self criticism.