Origami in Therapy

Origami is the Japanese art of paper folding.  Created piece are often made from a single sheet of paper that has been folded without any cutting involved.  More involved pieces may be assembled from more than one piece.  A related art form, kirigami, involves both folded and cut paper.  I have always been fascinated by origami--it amazes me the multitude of things that can be created from folding a single piece of paper.  It was not until another psychotherapist gave a training at my clinic, however, that I even thought about incorporating it in to therapy.  Art therapy often encourages art methods that allow for individual, creative expression.  In contrast, origami involves carefully following a set pattern in order to create the chosen object.  I have found, however, that the process of creating a piece of origami can be very beneficial in therapy.

How can origami be used in therapy?
1. Building attention and focus: Origami can be a great activity to help children with ADHD to build attention because it requires focus and concentration to be successful.   In addition, you must follow the steps as they are written and constantly evaluate your work, which are important skills for children to learn.  I have found that even the most distractible kids can be engaged in origami and are motivated to successfully complete their piece.

2. Building frustration tolerance: There is no doubt that origami can be frustrating at times.  This makes it a perfect activity to help children build their ability to stick with something, even when it is difficult.  At times, I have prompted a frustrated child to stop, take a few deep breaths, try again, and ask for help if needed.  I will then talk with the child about how they can do the same thing when struggling with something else, like homework, instead of just giving up or getting angry. As a therapist, you can also be a good model of this. If you are having difficulty with an origami step, you can demonstrate calm perseverance as you work together to figure it out.

3. Practicing positive self-statements: I often help kids to notice their self-talk as they approach a difficult project or point out negative comments they make. We can then talk about how these thoughts may be unhelpful and how they can practice more positive statements--replacing "I can't" with "I can do this."

4. Building self-esteem: Some children who come to therapy have very few experiences with being successful.  Not only are they having behavior problems and constantly getting in trouble, but they may also be struggling in school.  Many children have also developed the belief that they are not "good" at art, even at a young age.  I have had more than one client who did not feel like they were good at anything, but they were extremely good at origami, sometimes even teaching me on a difficult pattern.  Although I usually keep a client's art in the office, at least until the end of therapy, I do let them take home their origami pieces.  It is amazing to see the look of pride on their face as they show off their origami to parents and siblings in the waiting room.

5. Relaxation and self-soothing: Origami can be a wonderful activity to engage in at the end of a difficult session.  For children who enjoy origami, it can be very soothing and relaxing.  If a session has focused on a difficult topic, I like to spend 5-10 minutes at the end of the session doing an art activity or game that the child enjoys.  Several of my child clients will choose origami, which allows them to calm down, cope with any anxiety or discomfort that has come up during session, and leave the session in a positive mood.  Some of my clients will request copies of the origami instructions, and they can then use origami at home as a relaxing, positive activity.

 I would love to hear how others might have used origami or additional benefits they have found.  My experience has mostly been in working with children and adolescents, so I would love to hear from anyone who has used origami in therapy with adults.  For more information, check out the links below.

Origami Fun: A great website with free, printable origami instructions.
Origami Instructions: Another website with origami and kirigami patterns
Theragami: Information about the benefits of therapeutic origami
Origami in Mental Health: A psychiatric nurse explores the therapeutic benefits of origami

Carolyn Mehlomakulu, LMFT, ATR is a psychotherapist in Austin, Texas who works with children, adolescents, and families.  For more information about individual therapy, child counseling, family therapy, and art therapy services, please visit www.therapywithcarolyn.com.

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