Sand Tray Therapy with Adults: Mining the Treasure of the Unconscious

By Lisa Knudsen, LPC CADCII

Note: The examples and photos used in this article are used with permission from the clients and details may have been changed to maintain the client’s privacy.

In my work with clients, I am always looking for fresh and creative ways to approach their trauma, grief, shame, addiction, and loneliness. I find it easy to get stuck when solely using “talk therapy” with its focus on logic and intellect. The mind naturally seeks concrete answers which do not always result in healing and insight. As a solution for this problem, I have found that the Sand Tray method is a useful way to bypass this reliance on cognition and language, as it helps my clients access their inner, unconscious world in a creative and meaningful way.

Therapists have practiced Sand Tray therapy since at least the 1940s. It was originally used with children who had been traumatized and did not have the language to put their experience into words. It involves the use of a rectangular, wooden tray, several inches deep, painted blue on the inside and filled with sand. There are also open shelves containing a broad variety of figurines and toys. Clients are invited to take their time looking at the available figures and encouraged to select the ones they are drawn to create their world in the sand.

I realize that this sounds strange and many times I find that my clients are skeptical or uncomfortable. I assure them that there is no right or wrong way to do a sand tray and educate them about how this process can evoke powerful and unexpected insights and emotions. Below are some excerpts from a client who found Sand Tray useful once she allowed herself to trust the process:

My client was surprised that she chose to depict her mom as a silver winged angel. She uses the demon and the four headed monster to represent her moms mental illness/demons/fear. She depicts herself as a mermaid as she has always been drawn to and loved them. Note that client placed the mermaid between the demon (moms dark side) and little angel (moms loving side).

“So as you can imagine , when my therapist directed me to her shelf of figures and a big sand tray—telling me to create a picture of my relationship with my mom—I had a hard time believing it would help. I felt quite silly. But I did my best in suspending my judgment, followed my therapist’s instructions and just went with it.”

She continues:

“I didn’t think. I just let my subconscious create the scene. And, to my surprise, it was incredibly accurate and unlocked something in me that I still don’t have words for.”

She ends with this:

“I cried a lot…The next day I woke up feeling lighter and freer and less worried that I’d turn out like my mom than I ever have”.

Here are a few examples of sand trays created by my clients along with one I made to facilitate the writing of this article as I had crippling writers block and wanted to learn about what was in the way of my muse!

A sand tray depicting my client’s world as he sees it. He and his family love Disney so he represented himself as Maui from Moana and his wife as Elsa from Frozen. The client is a hunter (see figure with bow and arrow) and enjoys nature as depicted by the tree and owl. I found that he was softer and more open to being vulnerable following his creation of this tray.
Here is an example of the sand tray figures available to my clients.
This is the tray I created to depict my muse as the blue fairy in the center surrounded by figures to strengthen and bolster her such as the clock (plenty of time), a whimsical and beautiful figure in a purple dress, the owl (wisdom), etc. In the background are the barriers to her expressing herself freely such as a policeman (representing authority and rigidity), a teapot and fancy straw lady (representing formality and perfectionism).

In my experience using the sand tray method with adults is most useful in two instances. The first is when a client is experiencing fear or high anxiety that does not respond to other interventions (such as grounding techniques or positive self- talk). Frequently, this fear is nebulous and vague so that language falls short in capturing it. Creating a sand tray enables the client to access the right side of the brain and tap into emotions and experience that are stored there. This is illustrated by the client excerpts above where she references “something I still don’t have words for”.

The second instance in which I find the method valuable is when a client is stuck in a cycle of repeating the same thoughts and quest for answers without accessing and connecting to their emotions. These clients can benefit from taking a leap of faith and using sand tray as a means of foregoing words and “solutions” and allowing their inner wisdom to surface via their imagination and senses (touching and moving the sand, placing the figures, watching a “world” emerge). This was the case for me when I used the sand tray to explore why my writers block was so paralyzing.  I had a phrase “writer’s block” to describe what was wrong and many words to “explain” my experience which were of very little use to me in moving forward.  Utilizing the sand tray afforded me the freedom and courage to boot up my computer and click away!

Lisa Knudsen, LPC CADCIl,

To learn more about Lisa, check out her Newberg Counseling & Wellness therapist profile.

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