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Finding one’s Centre: Youth in Vancouver during COVID-19

Throughout Dr. Abby's sessions, in conjunction with expressive arts therapies and contemplative writing she often employs various mindfulness practices. The general aim of mindfulness is also to connect with oneself.

Eleven months into the global Covid19 pandemic, the statement, we are living in “unprecedented times”, has become commonplace and cliché. But truth is at the root of clichéd phrases like this statement. Finding and feeling our way through this new reality has been fraught with stark and opposing responses; from being immobilized and stuck, to being re-inspired and productive. As an educator and counsellor who has been working with tweens, adolescents, and adults in the community, I have witnessed both responses/ states of being are completely understandable and interchangeable as minutes’ turn into hours, as hours turn into days, as days turn over into weeks, and weeks turn into months.

For the purpose of this article, I wanted to focus on how the tweens and adolescents I work with have acknowledged that while living life through Covid 19 is extremely tough, they have found as the late Maya Angelou phrased “rainbows in the clouds” during this period. It is important to acknowledge the challenges youth face such as, experiencing restrictions to peer group interactions and experiencing the pivot of their schooling to remote learning. Further, an important yet more general challenge youth have faced, is that the developmental stage these tweens and adolescents are in is typically is punctuated by healthy detachment from their families and in turn, commonly it is a period where more independence is fostered. This has been halted, interrupted, and/or confused as Coivd19 has demanded that youth are at home with their parents and families. 

Despite these challenges, many of the youth I have worked with acknowledge that they have been able to cultivate and create a deeper connection to themselves. My overarching teaching and therapeutic philosophy is to meet the individual where they are. I try to listen to their spoken and unspoken language without handing out a quick fix. I am interested in how individuals especially tweens and adolescents connect with themselves as their lives have slowed down, as they have retreated to bedrooms, and in person interactions and experiences have reverted to screens and the virtual world. In order to facilitate a way in to the interiority of my clients I use the modalities of expressive arts therapies, contemplative writing, and mindfulness practices. In the sessions I hold with them, they commiserate on how life is for them; grieving the smaller and larger losses and disappointments they have experienced; they freely use the session to rant and complain, and share their fears and anxieties. I then work with them in various creative and expressive modalities which has enabled them to clarify, settle, discover, and deepen a connection to their mind, body, and heart. In some cases, I have witnessed youth truly begin to thrive in their lives as they have become much more centred and connected to themselves. 

Conducting expressive art exercises on secured video has been a poignant and immediate process. Using the shared-screen option, tweens and adolescents have been able to create and present their creations in real time. Expressive art therapies have encouraged self-discovery and has enabled youth to access a range of emotions and insights that many of them did not even know they were experiencing. Engaging in exercises such as “what is in my heart”, “draw a place”, “shape of me” have lowered stresses and anxieties, assisted in attention span/focus, created an emotional uplift, and emotional awareness. In these stressful, highly anxious times, expressive arts therapies have assisted greatly in calming, centring, and connecting youth to their interior selves and the larger landscape of their lives. Many of the youth have reflected that by creating, talking about, and reflecting on their art they are more centred and settled in themselves despite the uneasy and ongoing pandemic landscape.

Contemplative writing is a compassion practice that encourages one to write whatever the mind has to offer. It is a modality that helps to access who we are, what we need, and what we want. It is an embodied practice that allows connection of one’s head, heart, body, breath and the page. Individual contemplative writing sessions, have enabled youth to listen fully to themselves and the stories they need to tell and share. Contemplative writing has enabled youth to be listened to and furthermore, to connect deeply with their own insights and often non-realized thoughts. I often tell my clients: tell your stories-I will hold your words and the spaces between them. The modality of contemplative writing has allowed youth to gain a deeper confidence, feel empowered as they accessed and used their own voices, and overall experienced a sense of agency through the writing, telling, and sharing of their stories.

Throughout my sessions, in conjunction with expressive arts therapies and contemplative writing I often employ various mindfulness practices. The general aim of mindfulness is also to connect with oneself. For tweens and adolescents, who are used to, even in Covid19, a fast-paced, pop-up, manic existence with multiple device in the reach of their hands and gazes, mindfulness offers a sharp departure from that. The frenzied pace of day-to-day life often increases anxiety and depression in young people. It needs to be said that often the anxiety and depression is more of a low-grade malaise that we are unaware of until we begin to practice mindfulness. Generally, mindfulness involves slowing down, becoming connected interiorly, delving into a deeper breath, noticing, and following through into various practices to relax the mind and body. With tweens and adolescents, I also invoke the senses encouraging them by carrying out exercises that use guided imagery and engagement of the five senses. This sensory engagement includes holding and touching various objects and taking time to peel and eat/taste an orange. In the slowing down, in the distillation to being in the moment, in the focus of breath awareness and sensory awareness I have found youth to become more relaxed, receptive, and connected. Once they have practiced mindfulness, it serves as a useful and cushioning tool whereby youth are able to calm and centre themselves as they navigate their day-to-day lives.

Dr. Abby Wener Herlin holds a doctorate degree from the University of British Columbia. She is the founder of Threads Education and Counselling and works with tweens, adolescents, and adults. She carries out themed social justice and creative arts and writing workshops for students, teachers, and schools. She also teaches contemplative writing workshops and has openings for April-May classes. All sessions are now conducted on secure video. Abby can be reached at [email protected]