Brain science in the sand tray

Brain science can be empowering and give us a greater understanding of how we experience the world. And brain science isn’t just for adults, children and teens can show benefit from learning about the brain and how these functions contribute to experiences and symptoms. Learning about this can be normalizing and validating and help people gain greater buy-in when teaching coping skills.

The amygdala is a simple part of the brain I often talk about with to children, teens and adults (especially those who have experienced trauma or struggle with anxiety symptoms).

Below is a sample script of how to explain the amygdala…

⁃ I often initially describe the amygdala as the “security guard” or “smoke alarm” of the brain.

⁃ The amygdala’s job is to keep you safe. It scans for threats.

⁃ When the amygdala notices a threat it starts to communicate with other parts of the brain and can start to activate the body’s survival mode (fight, flight, flee or fawn response).

⁃ The thinking brain becomes dull and your body and brain is ready to try to survive the threat. Thinking and making informed choices is very difficult when we are in this mode.

⁃ Sometimes the amygdala gets confused and responds to things that are not actually threats. This may be from past memories that trigger the amygdala (especially with trauma).

⁃ Taking AT LEAST three deep breaths where the out breath is longer than the in breath can begin to turn off survival response.

Sand tray activity:

1. describe the amygdala using the key points described above. Additional information or less information can given based on developmental level and age.

2. Have the person choose a character to represent the amygdala or “security guard.”

3. Practice deep breathing to calm the amygdala when it is confused and acting upon something that is not an actual threat.

4. Remind the person that the amygdala has the person’s best interest in mind and is trying to ensure safety. This can be validating and help the person not feel shame, that is often associated with survival based responses.

5. Have the individual create a world in the sand to help the amygdala feel safe. This can then be used as an imaginary skill to help the person feel safe in various environments. Have the person practice imagining the safe place they created while deep breathing when they notice they are triggered or before entering into a potentially triggering situation. Having an imaginary intervention can help counteract intrusive memories that may also feel threatening.

Printing the safe place as a reminder of the imaginary skill can also be helpful.

Other ideas about brain science, psycho-education, or trauma? Feel free to share!

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