Healing with Clay

When Zaylee came to consult with me, she was desperately missing her mother who had passed away four months earlier. I suggested she spend focussed time remembering her mom during our session and offered her a large ball of potter’s clay to play with. Zaylee selected a classical piano playlist to fill our therapy studio with sound.

This is the verbal guidance I gave her while she held the clay and started playing with it:

  • There is a bottle of water in front of you - Take frequent sips from the water to hydrate you. Dip your fingers into the bowl of water if the clay gets dry. Try tune into these natural elements of earth and water and earth in your hands as you use this feeling to ground your experience.
  • Close your eyes, let your entire body relax and just roll the clay round in one or both hands for a minute or two.
  • Tune into the music while you play with the clay – it will increase your sensory awareness. Try using your ‘don’t think’ mind with the clay. 
  • Be aware of your breathing as you roll the clay and listen to the music.
  • Breath into the count of five, and breath out to the count of six. We will do this three times. Pull the clay each time you inhale and squeeze it as you exhale.
  • Try different motions with the clay – pressing, rolling, stroking, pulling, flattening, molding.
  • Try marking the clay with your pencil.
  • Allow your relaxed breath and body to guide your fingers in the clay. Bring your mother into your consciousness while you do this.
  • Continue molding the clay until you feel a shape or image, and without judgement, allow something to emerge.
  • Let the music support you while your fingers create an association with your mom in some form or another. It may be an abstract form, a flower, a seedpod, a doll, a little pot. Continue working until you are satisfied with the object you are molding.
  • Work slowly, with purpose, for fifteen minutes or until your experience feels complete.
  • Enjoy the sensorial experience.

Zaylee and I both looked at her image when she was done. I asked her to describe to me what she saw, paying attention to the qualities of the clay sculpture and what this evoked in her. She had made a leaf and then pinched and pulled out a small doll from the clay to place in the curled leaf. She told me that the sculpture represented her longing to be held by her mother. This experience of feeling closer to her mom brought her a great deal of comfort and relief because she was creating the holding by spiritual means.

It was my turn to describe what I saw. I witnessed a grieving daughter longing for her mother and searching for a way to express her grief. I saw a tender unfolding and molding, sensing the gap between her and her mom closing as their bond emerged between Zaylee’s fingers. She spoke to me about her mother, sharing precious memories as well as some uncomfortable, unspoken words that she wished she had said to her mom.

This is called active grieving. Zaylee had spent an entire hour in a safe space, quietly holding her love, memory, and loss of her mother. She narrated her grief, and her healing, both visually and verbally.

Zaylee and I concluded our session by talking about the therapeutic qualities of clay and how playing is a state of being that enables us to feel free to explore and express, without inhibition or self-judgement. How it further allows us to think flexibly and in three dimensions. It’s easy to ‘let yourself go’ when you have earth and water in your hands – think about the image of a child swimming in a muddy, natural pool.

Clay is a naturally forgiving medium. Until it has dried, it can be reshaped into endless forms, shapes and objects. We learn from clay because it reveals our own ability to adapt, experiment, problem-solve, take risks. This makes clay a powerful medium for releasing deeper emotions, including fear and trauma.

For Zaulee, her small, spontaneous clay sculpture was the beginning of a creative conversation with her mom; during her next narrative arts therapy session she worked with words and images to honour her mother’s memory.

Here is a quick summary of the science behind clay therapy:

  • Calms anxiety
  • Reduces overwhelm
  • Clears up confusion
  • Reduces stress
  • Increases self-esteem
  • Enables reflection
  • Releases grief
  • Helps to express trauma or anger

Neuroscientists have found that clay therapy engages various sensory and motor functions, activating neural pathways associated with touch, movement, and creativity. The tactile experience of working with clay stimulates sensory receptors, triggering the brain's reward system. This engagement enhances neural connectivity and may influence emotional regulation. Additionally, the motor skills involved in shaping clay contribute to brain plasticity, supporting cognitive flexibility.

If you are curious to know more about neuroscience and art, the new book, Your Brain on Art, by Susan Magsamen and Ivy Ross, is a treat for curious and creative minds.

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