By Lisa Dion, LPC, RPT-S
At breakfast time, I went downstairs to the hotel restaurant to eat and to spend 30 minutes to prepare for a six-hour seminar I planned to teach that day — working with sand in play therapy. I felt poised and inspired to spend the day teaching and engaging with a room full of 100 eager therapists ready to learn.
I ordered food and grabbed my laptop. I pulled up my slide presentation and gasped. Why was only one of my 20 slides showing? My heart started to pound as panic quickly creeped in. I frantically searched my computer pulling up every folder I could think of in hopes that somewhere there was a copy. There wasn’t. I checked my thumb drive. Only one slide was on that one, too. What was I going to do? In 40 minutes I had to be in a taxi heading to the training center.
I started to observe the oscillation of my internal states as I was moving from feeling like somehow I could do something about this dilemma to wanting to give up and cry. I could feel the rapid change in my perception as it went back and forth between, “I can” and “I can’t,” and I felt my body respond accordingly each time. I was on my own internal roller coaster between the activation of my sympathetic (fight, flight, freeze) and parasympathetic (collapse) responses of my autonomic nervous system.
As I sat there in my state of panic, I realized that this was a play therapy moment. I felt the blessing of Synergetic Play Therapy enter my consciousness as I was able to objectively understand what was happening to me and why it was occurring. It also meant that I knew what to do. My students often tell me that Synergetic Play Therapy is a way of life. They describe it as a way of knowing how to deeply attune and connect with self and in this moment I felt the profound truth in their description. I had two choices: continue to detach from myself and further the dysregulation I was experiencing or reattach and discover what was possible.
I chose to reattach, and I took a huge breath. I began to interact with the moment just like I would had I been in a play therapy session where a child engages me in play where I am put in a position to feel complete panic, stuck and holding an enormous amount of pressure that I might disappoint others. Sitting there at my table in the hotel restaurant, the irony that I was in my own play therapy session didn’t go past me.
So I began to do what I teach my students to do…. Consciously move towards the uncomfortable thoughts, sensations and emotions. I used my own breath to help me. I also noticed that my body wasn’t moving, so I began to move. I rubbed my legs and shook out my arms and allowed myself to begin to regulate my system. I named my experience to myself — “I am scared. I don’t want to disappoint my students. Part of me thinks I can get creative and find a solution and part of me wants to cry.”
As I facilitated my own play therapy session for a few minutes, something magical started to happen. The energy in my system began to integrate, and I found myself beginning to center and ground. I found that the oscillation of my perceptions starting to slow down, and I found myself knowing that I could do something. I was ready to mobilize into action from a conscious and grounded place inside of me.
I picked up my phone and called one of my students that was going to be there to help me out. “Can you get there early and have everything ready for me?” I asked her. I explained the situation and said with confidence, “I am going to sit here for the next 45 minutes, and I am going to recreate my presentation from memory, so I need everything ready, so that I can walk in last minute.”
Then I got to work. I knew that in order for me to pull this off, I was going to have to stay steady and stay in my pre-frontal cortex. I knew that I needed everything to fire on all cylinders, which meant that I was going to have to take everything I knew about the brain and nervous system regulation and apply it. Any time spent second guessing, beating myself up or not being able to recall what a particular slide looked like, where I stored the photo, what the slide said, etc was going to be a minute that I didn’t have.
For 45 intense minutes, I regulated my way through my stress responses doing everything to stay attached to myself. When I couldn’t recall the slide in my mind and panic would start to say hello, I regulated. When I couldn’t remember exactly where I stored the photo that I used for a particular slide, I regulated. When I looked at the clock and saw that I had 10 minutes left and thought I wasn’t going to make it, I regulated. When I couldn’t remember the exact words I used or the order to put the slides in, I regulated. And each time, I remembered.
I did it. I walked into the training center with 15 minutes to spare, leaving just enough time to test the microphone, set up my laptop and orient myself to my students.
And the day was magical. I began the day sharing my story and I referenced it throughout the day to describe the power of knowing how to understand and regulate through our states of activation in the body. I facilitated my own play therapy session using Synergetic Play Therapy principles, and they helped me stay attached to myself so I could then show up for my students and help them learn how to attach to themselves.