How Do Therapists Use Stones in Counselling?
If you’re a counsellor, psychotherapist, or Art Therapist, chances are that you have gathered together a nice little collection of attractive and interesting stones that sit in a little basket or bowl somewhere. Perhaps you’re wondering about finding more ways you could use your stones in counselling with your clients.
Here are 14 ways that I and my clients use stones in counselling and therapy sessions. (Personally, I think number 12 is my favourite… How about you? And if you have other ways that you use stones in counselling, please leave a comment at the end – I’d love to hear your views!)14 ways to use stones in counselling and psychotherapy sessions Click To Tweet
1. Grounding and Mindfulness
Stones, which of course literally come from the ground, are great for helping a client practise grounding – coming back to the immediate here-and-now – when feeling overwhelmed and dysregulated.
With your client holding a stone, invite them to use words to describe the phenomenology as they experience it: the stone’s texture, colours, shape, size, weight, asymmetries, temperature, etc. An extension exercise might be to invite them to expand their focus to include awareness of the effect of gravity on their body and the stone.
They may like to begin to use their imagination to help them pay attention to the physical layers below: their bodyweight pressing down into their feet, legs and ‘sitz’ bones; the chair pushing towards the floor; the walls leading down into the foundations of the building; the soil, archaeological layers and bedrock below that. (Obviously, if you are outdoors practising Eco-therapy, Equine-Assisted Therapy or walk-and-talk therapy, you can make this immediately experiential.)
A relationally-informed mirroring/ attunement approach in which client and therapist sit on floor cushions with stones and sandtray can effectively help a hypo-aroused or hyper-aroused client return to their ‘window of tolerance’.
2. Process-focused Working
Simply arranging stones without any plan or particular intention, can lead to interesting and unexpectedly deep work. (This can be particularly the case with HSP (Highly Sensitive) clients).
You might invite the client to allow their intuition to guide them in creating an arrangement of stones that feels satisfying to them. This may spark discussion about their experience of process, and how it feels for them to allow their felt sense to lead. Can they let their ‘inner critic’ step back so that they can play freely? What do they notice happens when they do this? And how does it feel to ‘play’ in the presence of an attuned other (the therapist)?
A client who is used to more left-brain, outcomes-oriented approaches may find this new perspective – this new way of conceptualising how to be in the world – quite illuminating and even transformative.
3. Identifying Themes
When a client begins without a plan or intention, and simply creates a satisfying arrangement of stones, themes may emerge that seem to come up from the deep unconscious. It’s a bit like free-association or dreamwork.
This can bypass the familiar, well-worn paths characteristic of rumination. Space is created for authentic felt senses to lead to fresh perspectives, links and insights.
In other words: we get into ruts and habits of thinking, where the same thoughts churn round and round, washing-machine style. Being creative without any outcome in mind, and then exploring what that’s like – and finding words to communicate this with someone who is deeply attending (the therapist) – can shift us out of the habitual thinking-patterns and into something new and fresh. This can help us get clarity and new ways of understanding what’s going on for us.
4. Exploration of Identity
From a group of stones that your client has arranged, you might ask ‘Where might you be, here?’ (And of course, if the client does not identify themselves there, that’s fine, and it’s useful information to help recalibrate the work.) When a client does choose a ‘me’ stone, you can begin together to unpack what attributes they may have projected on to the stone.
There are many ways you can go with this; for example, one stone might represent ‘me when I’m feeling confident’, another ‘shy me’, whilst another might be ‘my anxiety’. Besides exploring self-states/ parts of self, a client can consider what other attributes they sense in their ‘me’ stone. What does its relative size suggest? How about its shape, colour and texture?
Keep in mind that projections on to objects in therapy can be intense and powerful. An exercise like this can evoke difficult-to-manage emotions such as shame, which may risk decompensation, so be careful about grading therapy experiments according to the ego strength and needs of your client.
5. Right Brain – Right Brain
Successful psychotherapy, says Allan Schore, always involves communications between the right hemisphere of the client’s brain and the right hemisphere of the therapist’s brain. Schore also reminds us that communication between conscious and unconscious processes are always mediated via the right hemisphere.
Working with arts and play materials, such as stones, allows the right hemisphere to become more central, and thus frees up brain/ body pathways for information and energy to flow, helping unblock the stuckness that may have brought someone to therapy in the first place.
6. Evoking Sensory Memories
“This stone feels like your skin feels when you’ve been swimming in the sea… smooth but also a little bit rough, and that faint stickiness from the salt and sand” said my client Tina*, thoughtfully. Her voice slowed as she connected with body-based memories.
Transporting us both through her evocative words, to a beach that she knew well from childhood, Tina got in touch with a deep felt sense of peace and pleasure. We were subsequently able to use this multi-sensory image as a resource in helping her heal from a trauma dating from her teenage years.
Many people find that when they hold a stone and take some time to allow it to have an effect on them, memories from earlier in life emerge spontaneously.
These may be pleasant and nurturing memories (such as Tina had); but it’s important to be aware that stones may equally evoke memories associated with traumatic events including bullying, accidents, and assault. When the trauma-based associations can be carefully untangled in therapy from the benign ones, a client can become freer to enjoy the supportive pleasures of nature once more.
7. Where Am I in Relation to Others?
After they’ve selected and arranged a group of stones, you might invite your client to imagine that these stones represent their social group (or their family, or people at their place of work). How do they feel the arrangement needs to be reconfigured, when they see things in this light? Where is the client’s ‘me-stone’, in the arrangement? Are they on the edge? In the middle? Who is the largest stone? Who is the smallest? Does anything seem unfair or troubling in the constellation?
When Tina did this, she noted that the group was swirling around in one direction. She explained that her ‘me-stone’ was happy to follow along with the others, but she also realised it needed to be pointing in a slightly different direction. That led to a productive exploration of her sense of self in groups, and her fears and needs as they conflicted and merged with those of others.
Many counsellors and therapists use genograms with their clients, to help clarify and identify wider family patterns and themes. Use of concrete materials such as stones, in conjunction with paper diagrams, may deepen and enhance the symbolism and learning.
9. Life Timelines
Rolls of cheap paper can be used to create a life timeline. The client can place stones along the line to mark particular moments of significance, including change-points, powerful emotional memories, etc. You or the client might take photographs to create a record of the work.
10. Transitional Object
Some clients, particularly in depth-oriented attachment-informed psychotherapy, benefit from having a transitional object, taken with permission from the therapy room, between sessions or during therapy breaks. A stone can be particularly useful for this purpose, particularly if it’s small enough to hold comfortably and discreetly in the hand or pocket.
The stone has no monetary value, yet it can hold enormous symbolic value for both client and therapist, standing as a reminder and token of the importance of the therapeutic relationship at this time in the client’s life.
As one client said, the very fact that the therapist is willing to take part in the lending of the stone, and could understand the symbolic importance for the client in their (temporarily) regressed state, can be a large part of the healing power of this intervention.
A client may choose a small stone to represent supportive qualities such as courage, resilience, love and strength. Carrying this ‘talisman’ around, they may feel that its energetic properties are an available resource that they can draw upon in times of need.
12. Evoking and Fostering Creativity
For some clients, especially those with ‘art wounds’ (painful memories of being shamed or judged over their drawings etc), creativity can seem like something that others do but they cannot. For these clients, being flung full-on into painting or drawing can feel too intimidating, and even shaming.
Yet a therapy that ignores the deep human need for creative expression is not going to help a client blossom into their fullest self. This is when natural materials such as stones can be invaluable. There is no ‘wrong’ way to arrange stones, and no ‘right’ way either. Stones can be handled and placed in various ways, and a client can be encouraged to tune in to their inner sense of ‘what feels right’.
A client can discover that different configurations of stones may resonate for them in different ways. One client may feel deeply satisfied by arranging the stones in lines, or a grid. Another (or perhaps the same person on a different day) will respond to an inner urge to lay the stones in size order, or in a spiral or circle, or in clusters, or creating a design like a mandala or concentric circles.
In this way, a client can develop a new relationship with their intuition and aesthetic senses, moving away from fear and judgement towards trusting their own inner guidance.How using stones in counselling can help clients boost their #creativity Click To Tweet
13. Supervision Perspectives
Inspiring supervisors are always looking for ways to help their supervisees to view their work with fresh eyes, especially when a supervisee feels stuck or muddled around their work with a particular client. Use of arts materials such as stones in counselling supervision can offer a non-shaming, sideways way of looking at a therapeutic relationship. It can also offer a new way for a counsellor to conceptualise a client’s relationships and inner landscape.
[Looking for online creative supervision? Email me espcameron[at]protonmail[dot]com]
14. Painting on Stones
Acrylic paints and ‘Posca’ pens could be used for painting on stones. If you’re an Art Therapist you may have these available for clients to use during sessions. Outside of sessions, some counsellors like to paint words or statements on stones. Others paint images and symbols that might later be used alongside other objects in the sandtray.
Don’t forget to seal the stones using some kind of varnish (advice on this can can be found online; always be mindful of toxicity and possible noxious fumes). There are many books, videos and blogs about stone-painting, and you can find plenty of inspiring examples on Instagram and Pinterest.
Finally, a Couple of Practicalities…
When you use stones in counselling and psychotherapy, there are a couple of practical things to think about: what to make available as a backdrop or ground, and of course the all-important issue of sourcing your stones.
Consider the Ground
A client can place the stones within a designated ground or frame, such as a sandtray, tabletop or large sheet of paper. This boundaried space is helpful for containment and building a felt sense of safety. Alternatively, both client and therapist may sit on a carpet, with the area between them forming the ‘potential space’.
If you work with stones in counselling, do make sure you have thought about boundaries and containment, and how these themes play out in basic concrete terms as well as metaphorically, relationally, etc.
Where to Get Stones
Aim to amass a collection of rocks, stones and pebbles that is very varied and encompasses a wide range of sizes, shapes, colours and textures.
What could be more relaxing and soul-nurturing than wandering along a beach, looking out for interesting stones? Of course, beaches vary, so keep visiting different ones when you can, and notice the different types of stones available in different places.
You can also buy stones, pebbles and glass ‘pebbles’ in home-improvement stores, aquarium stockists, cheap homeware shops (like Wilko or The Range) and places that sell crystals and semi-precious stones.
Let your family and friends know that you’re on the lookout for interesting rocks and stones, and maybe they’ll bring one back from their travels.
Lastly: What have I missed out?
How do you use rocks and stones in counselling and psychotherapy sessions? What has your experience been?
Do please leave your comments below!
What a wonderful article and I especially love the idea of using stones with more practical things like genograms. I’ve attended family counselling with my own children and it would have been lovely to have used them in this way. As a child counsellor I have often used stones and pebbles in my work and I like to include them as part of the ending of our therapeutic relationship so that the client can choose a particular stone to take away with them that best represents our time together.
Such a simple yet very effective and versatile tool. And such a lovely subject to look into. Thank you.
Cindy Corriveau says
Having been through a lot in my lifetime I have found painting rocks to be the best therapy I have ever done for myself. Affirmations written on the stones keep me focused on positive thinking and recovery thinking. Gathering stones at ocean beaches, rivers etc. is relaxing and focuses me on grounding, nature and being in the present. Painting the stones allows me a creative outlet to see just how imaginative I can be and again in the present in the moment. Sharing my rocks with others encourages positive discussions on sayings or paintings on the rocks. Lastly hiding them for others to find or giving them away is sharing something personal that everyone can enjoy. The wonder of who might find my rock and enjoy it is just plain fun to think about. It doesn’t matter what age or skill level anyone is because regardless they always seem to come out great! It’s inexpensive. The canvass ( the rock) is free in nature and for the price of some inexpensive acrylics or paint pens one can create art. Lastly one can work on rocks anywhere. A couple rocks and some markers travel easily to the doctors office, the beach or to your favorite support group or book club. It’s an awesome hobby and the ideas generated are endless possibilities of what to paint or write on a rock. I highly recommend it to anyone looking to relax, recover, think positively, relieve depression or just create and have fun.
Emma Cameron says
Thanks for contributing your experience, Cindy! It sounds like painting on stones is a wonderful creative outlet for you.
Helen Lehrle says
I’m painting stones for my own self care as well as putting rocks out in the village where my practice is. It took off so well I’m going to run some workshops and rock painting groups for people wanting some calm.
Thank you for posting this up.
Emma Cameron says
Thanks Helen. Yes, painting stones is a great idea for some creative self-care.
And it sounds like you’re really spreading the idea in your community, so others can benefit too.
I’ve never thought about how so many of us have these in our offices! Love the ideas.
I love using grounding stones with clients and for myself too – so nice to ‘figit’ sometimes when processing difficult memories. Lovely article thank you for sharing your insight
A wonderful, informative, and inspiring post! I would love to hear a bit more specifics on how stones could be used in supervision. I am compelled to join your mailing list. Thank you for sharing your ideas and insights!
This is wonderful! One thing I’ve done with my clients is walk down to the beach and invite them to build a small cairn. I’ve done this both as a mindful activity, and with a men’s group “what does your cairn say about you?”.
Sarah Cella says
I’ve used as mindfulness or grounding activity to pick the stones up and feel the texture temperature weight etc in your hand. Given them to clients to take with them as tool to relax. Also used as a discharge object, we wrote inspiring words or phrases on them in paint pen and each gave one to each other. I work with teens and kids FYI!
Sona DeLurgio says
This is lovely Emma! I use stones in my office and have for years. My main uses of stones have been as transitional objects, for grounding and mindfulness, and (I just learned this concept in reading your blog) the Talisman 🙂
I’m always touched when I see clients light up when they see the stones and then the very careful process they go through in searching for just the right one.
Thank you for this wonderful blog.
Autumn Girl says
I’m envious of those who have a therapist who will use stones! It sounds like a way in. I don’t have that, unfortunately. I just have to talk, which I’m less and less compelled to do. No deep work for me. 🙁
Emma Cameron says
Hi. I hear your sense of missing out and your concern that your therapy doesn’t seem to be going ‘deep’.
I just want to say that sometimes it can seem like no deep therapeutic work is being done, when in fact it is. I know this from both sides of the ‘therapy couch’.
Obviously I don’t know you or anything about your personal therapy process, so I can’t say whether this is true in your particular case.
I wish you well, and hope that you and your therapist can find increasingly meaningful ways of communicating together.
Autumn Girl says
Thank you Emma. I’m sure you’re right. I mentioned this at the end of my last session – as I was leaving – and my therapist looked like a ten-tonne truck had smashed through the wall. Therapy, eh? Always plenty to talk about.
Hi Autumn Girl, and Emma,
I hope you don’tmind me joining your discussion. I’ve just started therapy (3 weeks); there were a few issues I wanted to cover in therapy, and I have only so far managed to raise one, when my therapist introduced pebbles and beads etc. It seems a lovely idea, and I think it might help to bring out unexpected sides of therapy, but in this session it seemed to block me talking about the other issues I wanted to bring, and took us down a blind alley that wasn’t helpful at this stage of therapy. I am wondering if pebbles etc. are lovely and very helpful, maybe later on in therapy, but maybe not always at the very beginning? Unless the client is finding it hard to begin opening up issues? What are your thoughts?
Emma Cameron says
Thanks for joining in! You sound thoughtful and reflective.
Maybe you could mention to your therapist that there are some other issues you’re hoping to work on with him/her. Even just giving some ‘headlines’ can bring these things into the room. It can be important to not go too fast to start with in therapy, because it could unexpectedly feel too scary, so try to let your therapist know that there are some particular things you’d like to talk about, without expecting that you’ll both dive right in straight away.
Remember it’s a valuable ongoing learning curve about communication, too. Both of you are learning how best to ‘be’ with each other, and how to talk about awkward things like feeling disappointed, blocked or critical. (Things that are hard to talk about, but can be sooo valuable to talk about in the therapy relationship!)
Most of all, be kind to yourself – it’s lovely that you are so keen to make this work!
Maya Benattar says
Thank you so much for this Emma! So thoughtful and inspiring for my work. 🙂
Emma Cameron says
I’m so glad you enjoyed this post, Maya!
Coinneach Shanks says
Years ago I saw an experimental film with a man moving stones around and he gave them all a name! I thought this would make a useful exercise with many variations. Like the film maker, I found it useful to have one stone with no name! That one is called The stone with No Name and can take many projections. 🙂
Emma Cameron says
That’s intriguing, Coinneach!
(And are you familiar with your namesake, Coinneach Odhar, The Brahan Seer, who used a stone to foresee the future?…)
Lovely article, Emma. I love using stones with clients (especially to explore number 4 and 7 themes). And am so keen to try out using them as a tool for my supervision prep (not sonething my supervisor uses but figure i could do some good supervision preparatory/ reflection work on my own). Thank you so much so sparking so many thoughts!
Emma Cameron says
Yes, it’s great to use things like stones to help get a different perspective on our work with clients. Thanks for sharing those thoughts, Davina!
This was a lovely informative article. It’s given me more ways to use my stones and shells. I really appreciate your generosity in sharing your knowledge and experience.
Emma Cameron says
Thanks Celia, I’m glad you find the article useful, and I appreciate you leaving a comment.
So glad I found this! I have only used stones once in training and wanted to incorporate them into my practice, especially for younger clients. Thanks Emma!
Emma Cameron says
It’s great to know this has been helpful – thank you for letting me know, Jenny!
Northern Frontiers says
Meditation and deep understanding of inner-peace makes us calm. The stones represent different approach of each individual. A great article and a calming peace you shared here, thank you.
I love this – particualrly the idea of boundaries and containment. But all of it. I also associate stones with the ancestors and those who have been here before us. Beautiful. Thank you again.
Emma Cameron says
That’s a lovely perspective, to think of history and continuity through the ages. Thanks Naomi
Benjamin Andrews says
I found it interesting that you state that therapy is successful when the right brains of the client and therapist are connecting. My brother has been having problems feeling motivated to work and take care of himself and wants to find a way to get back on his feet. I will send him this information so he can find a counseling therapist that he can connect with.
Taking stones from the beach in the UK is illegal
Emma Cameron says
Thanks for that Hazel, yes I should probably add this to the article. Although I don’t think it is illegal on every stretch of UK coastline, I understand that there are certain councils that prohibit it.
Deb Gibson says
Thanks for this! I liked the idea of using stones in timelines – and for grounding. I’ve used them with teenagers and find they generally enjoy working in this way.
I’ve used them to represent what someone “carries around with them”; ie guilt, worry, shame etc and nicer things to carry around like hope or laughter. Interestingly this brought out how the harder things to carry were the bigger heavier stones and how different it would feel to carry just the lighter stones…
The stones have also represented different emotions they experience and this again leads to how would it feel if this one was bigger or smaller? One girls said “If I didn’t have such big anxiety, I’d have more space for the other feelings”… it just leads to some really deep insights and awareness. Love it!
Emma Cameron says
How interesting! Thanks for sharing this, Deb!
Lorraine Golding says
Emma thank you for this article . It felt like pearly words of wisdom deep with meaning. During my supervision we talked about endings and breaks during school time. The idea of Transitional objects came up and it got me thinking about stones and shells, whether I could use them. I think after reading your article my answer is a big Yes..
Meagan Schultz says
Thank you for sharing your knowledge here. I stumbled on this post when looking for some rock activities to do with some teens this weekend. I wonder if you ever read any rock/stone stories when you do this work? I’d love to find one. Thank you!
Emma Cameron says
Hi Meagan, thanks! And no, I haven’t used stories like this… let us know when you find one you like!
Anna Cherry says
Hi Emma – it was lovely to ‘stumble’ upon your website – thanks Google! In particular, I’m so glad to find a fellow traveller who advocates the use of pebbles as a healing and well-being catalyst. I’m an Emotional Intelligence Coach and, over the past few years, I’ve been developing a new tactila-visual-semantic approach using inscribed pebbles. I call my project Mindful Runes [www.mindfulrunes.com] and have received very encouraging feedback from participants. They find that handling physical objects – beautiful pebbles – helps them to focus on their specific issues and challenges. If you have time – please take a look at the website. There are 25 Mindful Runes – the inscribed icon on each one represents an aspect of EI which is fully interpreted ad guidance in an accompanying booklet and online.
Lorna Stoddart says
Absolutely lovely post, thank you. I’d like to let you know that I am a coach and forest school practitioner. I’ve been painting stones with eyes, noses, mouths making sure they are all different. Participants select the loose parts they want and create a portrait (of self, other or imagined – whatever they want). The conversation is fabulous.
Emma Cameron says
That sounds great!
thanks this help so much for my project assignment
Val Hanson says
Wow, after reading all of these wonderful experiences, my daily walk to the beach will now have me carrying a bag for pebbles..aswell as driftwood. I work with young people and I will certainly do the pebbles in a bowl, exiting my mentees by offering them a stone aswell as using the ideas for my summer school art sessions. Thankyou so much to all of you !
In my work with young people we happen to speak about things you can and cannot control. I give them a pebble in one hand and play doh in the other hand and let them feel the difference. The pebble is hard whereas the play doh can take different forms. The pebble teaches them things they can not control, like a teacher who gives them a lot of homework, the play doh teaches them things they can control : when they make their homework, the ‘reward’ (listening to music, PSgame) they give themselves after they finish their tasks, etc
Afterwards it becomes a metaphore for things they can/cannot control.
Emma Cameron says
Thanks for this, Ann – such a great idea!
Alice Suttie says
What have you missed out? Grief work. When my mother passed away a few years ago, I struggled with the need to be focusing on my grief and returning to work. I felt I still needed to honour and hold the grief, but knew that I would not be able to hold it fully attentively while busy with my patients as an anaesthetics nurse. My solution was to find a smooth black stone that fitted well in the palm of my hand ,with sufficient weight and substance. I deliberately let that be the holder of my grief while I had to attend to other things, and carried it in the pants pocket of my scrubs each day until I was ready to leave it at home. When my son’s partner’s father died very suddenly last year, and passed on a stone to her, via my son, to use in the same way. She was very appreciative. Just knowing that others are aware of the complexity of needing to move on with the stuff of life while still grieving and processing is helpful, of course, and being able to pass on a stone to used ( a different one) adds substance. It will certainly be something I do again as I am switching careers and currently training to be a counsellor,