S3 E7: Tori Farris on Art Therapy, Symbolism, and Our Brains

Tori Farris is a holistic healing specialist who is using expressive arts therapy to unlock and heal brains locked down by trauma. She was profoundly influenced by her study of yoga, meditation, and mindfulness practices. Centered around symbolism, an accepted part of civilization and a natural process of the human brain, Tori connected the dots and found creative practices for clinical work.

Podcast Transcript

David Condos
Welcome to Beyond Theory, a podcast powered by Meadows Behavioral Healthcare. That brings you in depth conversations from the frontlines of mental health and addiction recovery. I’m David Condos. traumatic experiences can cause the brain to lock down, and it’s often hard for talk therapy to unlock our nervous system on its own. That’s where expressive arts therapy comes in. So how does holistic healing specialist Tori Farris help people discover the restorative power of creativity? Let’s get out of the abstract and see how this applies in the real world. It’s time to go beyond theory.

Tori Farris
Hello, my name is Tori Farris, and I am the expressive arts instructor here at the meadows.

David Condos
Awesome well Tori, thank you so much for being with us today. Alright, so we’ll launch right into it with you kind of introducing us to your story, your background, who you are, and how you got to this place of using arts the way you do.

Tori Farris
So I would actually dedicate a lot of my interests in this to yoga and meditation. So the process of getting into my body through all those practices, and 2016 was the time that I got my 200, our registered yoga teacher certification, okay. And I had wonderful teachers in that time, who also brought in a lot of mindfulness practices, and practices that brought us into the deeper areas of the mind and the consciousness. So when I discovered how much more there essentially was, and here, the only thing that made sense was to find a way to express that. And yoga does some of that for me. But ultimately, when I met teachers met professors that were putting a little bit more instruction a little bit more explanation around what these movements were doing for the mind for the nervous system, then I was able to piece together. This is the movement, this is the art project that brings out this thing that has been trying to get out for a very long time.

David Condos
And so had you engaged in art previously? Were you like an artistic kid or like so that had started long ago?

Tori Farris
Yeah, I would say, naturalistic artists of some kind. I’ve always loved being outside. So I was always collecting rocks, things collaging to a point with that kind of stuff are building, but always very, very crafty. And I got I would say like the paint, stuff like that writing for my mom, and then more of the physical stuff using the hands to manipulate which is relevant and expressive arts, what types of mediums help you to express a type of energy. So it was very, very balanced, what I ended up bringing in from my parents in that way. And then art classes just always tended to be more so what I wanted to take as electives through middle school, high school, and so on. And I never considered myself an artist. I think that’s probably a key part to all of this is yes, I did art, but I never thought I was an artist because I didn’t necessarily see the talent that I had in it. I just enjoyed doing it. And that is the realization I had that ultimately proved to myself in the end that this is what I was meant to do in a sense, because art therapy, expressive arts, it doesn’t require ability, it doesn’t require technique or knowledge of art. All it requires is that there’s something coming out something is being expressed.

David Condos
Yeah, absolutely. And so for you once you said like yoga kind of unlocked this for you. What was the next step like toward becoming, like, like what you are today, but like vocationally.

Tori Farris
Right, so I had a couple teachers throughout my program. And I was in my master’s program already when I started my yoga training. And those teachers, which, of course, the name slipped me off top right now, all at JFK.

David Condos
So that was a master’s program in kind of using art and psychology or…

Tori Farris
Yeah, holistic Counseling Psychology. So the holistic Counseling Psychology is a program I’m in at JFK currently. And the seminars that I took around art and movement particularly, are really what set it in what fixed the interests?

David Condos
Yeah. And so then once you kind of received that training, you wanted to use it, put it into practice, how did you get connected with The Meadows Outpatient Center here in Silicon Valley and start doing this here?

Tori Farris
Well, in a personal way, it really feels like everything aligned. So I actually interviewed here initially to be a trauma informed yoga teacher. And I’m a substitute for them as well. It’s another role I have here. But whenever I talked with Jessica, and she looked at my resume talk to me about the seminar is the art expressive arts experience that I had. That was kind of like the segue into, hey, let’s talk about what you have to offer, I have this certain set of skills ready to use, and then the universe kind of drops this opportunity in front of me to say, hey, use them. I feel like that’s how the art shows up for the clients ultimately, because…

David Condos
because they’re not coming in saying, Oh, I know, I’m gonna do art therapy or

Tori Farris
right, or I want to do this project, or I want a journal or I love doing art, most people don’t actually enjoy it, which I would point more toward the nervous system being locked down into the trauma space, the brainstem, the space of the brain that protects us and traumatic or stressful experiences. And when that space of the brain is firing, we have very limited access to creativity. So for a lot of the clients, the patients that come into this room, their traumas on the surface to some degree, and when that’s happening, it’s, it’s hard, if not impossible, to actually feel creative or to feel creatively inspired. So to kind of last where I came from there without one, but essentially, it’s realizing that it’s not art, it’s the process.

David Condos
Yeah. And so, I guess, what does it look like? Like? So just for somebody who’s never experienced using Arts in this context? What like, what does that look like when you come in here and work with people in this room.

Tori Farris
So in this room, we focus primarily on mixed media. So journaling the collaging, we had last week, these wall sized human sized droughts that of people that we got to fill in and navigate the parts of our lives that are created who we are today. And I did mention a lot about movement and dance. That’s not something we do in this space. So in this space, it’s much more introspective. And it’s happening in a group. So we get feedback from people, the patients get feedback from people if they want it if they request it. And other than that, it’s a space where people to discover, I would say more than anything, I try to remind the people that come in that it doesn’t require ability. It’s just noticing, noticing what comes up. When I asked you to paint you hate it, notice that.

David Condos
Hmm. Yeah, I think those because I’ve seen those, like life size, human like butcher paper kind of pieces before. And I think that’s a great example of how you were describing that it’s not about making art, it’s about using that kind of as a conduit. Because you’re not trying to make this Hey, look, I made the best looking like, person on this piece of paper. It’s about what that kind of opens up, right? And then how do you use that? Like when like, once someone is experiencing that, opening that up? How do you use that? For the purposes of recovery in that moment, right.

Tori Farris
So you’re speaking to the aspect of symbolism, I would say to generalize it, and symbolism is something that exists in our collective conscious, which if we look at the work of Carl Jung, it goes back literally millions of years, the collective conscious and how long we’ve been developing it as a collective species. And when we look at symbolism, whether it’s color, or archetype, Anima animus or, you know, whatever other symbols that are exist within our culture within our own minds, we can find connections and within those connections start to tell a story. So the, the gingerbread man butcher paper project, for example, there’s a lot of symbols of pain of parts of the self being blocked or cut away, or symbols of symbols of pain, things that you don’t see on the surface. But dripping blood comes to mind or tears, symbols that when you look at them, we might have an initial impression. But when that patient that client gets to sit down and say, yeah, this is what the tears are saying this what the blood is saying, This is what it means to have mom resting on my shoulder, this is what it means to have dad resting on my shoulder. And that’s where the work starts to happen. Because beyond that collective conscious of we all share something is this deeper part of them, this is my personal experience. And that I think is the point here of our giving this, this window and two is very implicit, very symbolic experience that a soul has traveled through in their life. And that ultimately, we lose track of a lot of times. So art puts the pieces back together.

David Condos
So she’s like another way of helping them tell their story. Right? Wow. Yeah. And so you mentioned something earlier, that I think is interesting. You said, you use different types of media, meaning like, like clay or, or art or paint or whatever it is. And then there’s different like energy, right? So like, describe that, what does that mean?

Tori Farris
Yeah, so we, let’s say, on one end of the spectrum, we have feathers, and we have very soft pastels, or watercolor paints. And when you touch these items, or when you apply them to paper, apply them to whatever you’re creating rock sticks, thing, natural items are used a lot, not necessarily paper to adhere things to. And as you add here, those things as you work with those things, they’re going to bring about a certain essence of energy. So feathers, watercolor, we’re on the other end of the spectrum, you might be working with really hard clay, or sand or putty, a really good exercise for externalizing angers you silly buddy, like you said, like, pick up the newspaper. So you take the silly putty from the egg. And if you stretch it really slow it strings out and it takes its time. And if you take it in your thumbs and your fingers and pop it apart really fast will actually snap. So there’s a nice activity to do with that where you get to feel and express what it feels like for your anger to pop, for example, that’s not something you might do with a feather, a feather is going to be much softer, much slower. So by being able to identify where someone is regulated already where their energy level is, you can either use something that’s close to where their energy is to match them, or use something that’s outside of where their energy level is that to bring them into a new space or give them more so the option to bring themselves into a space. Yeah.

David Condos
And so it allows like another way of meeting them where they are kind of customizing it for each person.

Tori Farris
Yeah, and I usually what word energy a lot. Scientifically, it’s a nervous system. So does your nervous system need to be brought up? Or does it need to be lowered down? And what materials are going to do that for you? Yeah.

David Condos
And so looking at how art works within this process in this context? I know you’ve talked about trauma a little bit. Could you kind of dive into why this works, looking at addiction recovery, mental health recovery, trauma recovery, like why is art effective in this context?

Tori Farris
Yeah. So I would say the main reason is neuroplasticity, habit breaking pattern recreating. And when, I mean, humans are generally habitual patterns stick and that’s so the brain can resource energy to the things that we have to do to keep ourselves safe. So if we don’t have to change up our routine, we probably won’t. And what art does is it brings a creative outlet to this changing of the routine. So we’re used to waking up, getting ready for work, going to work doing this ABCD getting through the day, and all of a sudden we do art with an instructor teacher, and the brain has being primed to think and infinite new ways, just based on symbolism based on getting into this part. These parts of the brain that can be shut down to trauma. So when we get used to want to get patterns sickly attached, to functioning from the lizard brain from this trauma center, the protective center of the brain, the limbic system,

David Condos
then you’re pointing to kind of the back of the head, right?

Tori Farris
The back the lower part exactly where the brainstem connects, then we do not give ourselves an opportunity to say, hey, everything is okay. And when we don’t give ourselves opportunity to say everything is okay, then there’s this automatic permanent belief that it’s not and this automatic permanent patterning of I need to protect myself, I need to protect myself. So our interrupts that pattern brings the cerebral cortex back on line brings communication between right and left hemisphere, and actually allows the brain to rewire its understanding of what is happening in the present moment. And that’s it is coming to the present moment, and art brings you there. If you can get there, then you can believe that the trauma is in the past.

David Condos
And so it’s kind of like what would this be the right phrase to use that it like, unlocks that trauma, and then helps the rest of the parts of a like comprehensive treatment program helps the rest of those parts address that trauma in ways that they couldn’t otherwise?

Tori Farris
Yeah, so it’s going to my true opinion is it’s going to be the entire program here is a huge toolbox of tools being offered to each and every person patient that walks in. And art might be what both unlocks it and resolves it for somebody, it might be what unlocks it, it also might be what shuts it down. So I would say it’s ultimately going to be how that person uses it. But generally speaking, that’s my observation, yes, is that it unlocks the trauma of bringing stuff forward. So it can be seen. And then yeah, we get to take it into personal therapy into group into wherever else and kind of more deeply discover what’s going on. I would just add to that, too, though, that there doesn’t need to be an identification with the trauma for it to be resolved. The identification more so the art is bringing around the awareness the artists bringing around is this awareness of self. Again, here in the present moment, this is how I feel right now. This is what my nervous is. So my breath My body is doing right now. These are the thoughts that are running through my head pattern is sickly right now. And when we can become aware of who we are all those pieces that generally become very fragmented and trauma, then yes, art therapy helps to reintegrate all those pieces in a way that actually fits that person better.

David Condos
Yeah. And so I want to look at a couple bigger picture questions now. And so first would be what is one thing that you wish the general public understood more about, about art and specifically about like using it in this way for recovery?

Tori Farris
Go back to what he loved as a child. For me it was climbing trees and playing with rocks and finding age shells from ness and ness themselves on the ground. And, you know, go back to what intrigued you as a child, what creative expression intrigued you before someone told you before, you believed that you weren’t creative? Search for that creativity in your youth and bring that back? Because you don’t have to be an artist. But creativity is something that we all can do we all naturally have. And creativity is healing.

David Condos
Yeah. Yeah. Cuz like you said, it’s not about having quote unquote, talent, right? It’s about what it does for you. Like we think about

Tori Farris
the expression now, it’s about not keeping things bottled up inside. Yeah, yeah.

David Condos
Two more quick questions. First is what might be like a resource about this, that you’d recommend.

Tori Farris
So I would recommend definitely reading Bessel van der Kolk book, The Body Keeps the Score, definitely not specifically our base, but talks about that basic idea of needing to read the body and the body responses in order to let that be expressed. If we’re not aware of what’s going on, we can’t express it. Or it’s very hard to I would say, so. The Body Keeps the Score, anything by Peter Levine. And most of all open up to your own self exploring through. My first recommendation would be journaling, just starting to write. Yeah, with no rules. Yeah. And I guess my last piece for that would be mindfulness. Any mindfulness practices mindfulness teacher, there’s a book called The Buddha Brain that I just received myself. And that talks about the neuroscience behind peacefulness, wellness and the sense of wisdom. Yeah.

David Condos
Finally, what might be one piece of advice, something that that has meant a lot to you that somebody gave you or something that you find yourself passing on to others that seems to have a meaningful impact?

Tori Farris
Every person has every single one of their own answers, and tying that into the art. It’s there to help you find those. So, yes, look for people that feel wise find those teachers, but trust that the biggest teacher is inside.

Oh, good stuff. All right, Tori, thank you so much for your time.

David Condos
Tori Farris is a holistic healing specialist who offers trauma informed expressive arts therapy at The Meadows in Silicon Valley, California. Learn more about that Meadows outpatient center, and all the holistic therapy the program offers at MeadowsIOPSV.com. Beyond Theory is produced and hosted by me, David Condos. You can discover more from this podcast, including videos of each conversation at beyondtheorypodcast.com. Finally, thank you for listening. And I hope you’ll join us again next time for another episode of Beyond Theory.

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