Rhythm for calm

published 25 Mar 2021 by Marilyn Anderson in Practice category with 0 comments

Would you like to know more about using rhythm in a calming way?
Interaction Practitioner Verena Grys explains the relevance and effectiveness. 

A continous slow rhythm on the floor or on a drum can gain attention, support focus and offer a safe anchor, something predictable in an otherwise changing environment (different sounds, people moving around) and changing inner emotions and thoughts. 

Slow and steady – one syllable per beat: Chris-toph = beat-beat; Chris-toph – pause-pause, Chris-toph – pause-pause, tap-tap-pause-pause goes my flat hand on the floor, we are both sitting on. I am not looking directly at him,  so not to add ‘searching for eye contact‘ or even ‘expecting eye contact‘ to his inner stress list. This is an attempt to foresee and avoid stress triggers to give him a safe space in which he doesn’t feel observed or restricted by sharing a room with someone else, someone new and therefore unpredictable. 

As a response I try to be as predictable as possible, someone who acknowledges him, without putting expectations on him. 

There is no need for him to acknowledge me. 

I am sending the messages “I am here.”, “I am here in the same space with you” and “I notice you”.

By not expecting anything from him, but being with him and being continous in my actions, there is room for the creation of an atmosphere in which the person can share their true self and be seen.

The ‘ostinato’ (motif, phrase or rhythm that persistently repeats itself, the musical voice stays the same and variants of the motif or rhythm can appear later on, but have to be obviously connected to the original) is in this case, the rhythm played by my hand, but also the way I use my voice to say his name within that beat. My voice is also kept steady and calm and without sudden changes e.g.  in pitch from high to low or in its volume. Those changes can in a modulated way be used later on, once there is enough trust in the situation and within the relationship. 

The first step is to be experienced as safe company. 

The rhythm can take the pressure off, reducing focus on the other person and  offers the opportunity to tune into the rhythm and stay in that predictable safe space. 

All people are always perceived as high sensory input. They come with their own distinctive smell but that then can be changed on a daily basis with perfume, shampoo, a new cream, the experiences they had on that day (angst-sweat, workout-sweat and so on). 

The visual input is very high as clothes change daily and movement makes the whole body look different. In addition, every time a word is spoken the face passes through a row of different muscular movements, which change the expression, which in turn changes the whole appearance of the face. This quick look into just two senses gives an impression of the complexity of input and how difficult it could be for someone who perceives all these differences actively/consciously. 

It is vital to remember that you yourself have an impact on other people’s senses and they on yours, but there is no need to take any reaction to it as a negative or personal rejection

To have to remind yourself that you may be a potential sensory overload, as well as to take it with a positive spirit is also absolutely normal! I still have to remind myself, often. 

After the feeling of safety is established (and this process can take minutes, hours, weeks or months depending on the person and the circumstances), we move on to explore how to be interesting company. 

To be interesting but safe we can use variants of the safe motif e.g. change the rhythm but keep the name (tailored to the new beat) and keep the same tone of voice; Be in the same place/location in the same room and so on. 

Every detail that gets changed adds an uncertainty to the whole situation, so be sure you know what you want to change to create interesting uncertainty, within that safe frame for the both of you. The more trust is built the wider the frame and the bigger the opportunities for continous and potentially fun changes.

When trust is built, there is often more initiated eye contact; or perhaps a leaning into your side of the room with his/her body or a head movement in your direction. You are on the lookout for subtle cues like these. (You can look through your hair, fringe or have sideways glances to observe in between without being too obvious, if eye-contact is a stress factor for your opposite communication partner.) 

Once you’ve detected a cue, changes can be build onto this. You can keep the rhythm and name but add volume or a pitch change every time you notice this sign. 

With audio sensitive persons it is often better to go from medium range to low, instead of trying a change to a high pitched voice.

It then could develop into a dialogue and even a game, maybe not on the same day but maybe the week after, or the month after. The dialogue or game is not the goal and the time in between is not the path towards that goal. 

The experience of being together is the goal and that happens every time we listen to each other.

In case someone is not comfortable hearing their own name or you are unsure:

Use one of her/his repetitive actions/movements instead and verbalise them. Fit them to a beat e.g.: mo-ving fing-ers; mov-ing fing-ers; … repeat. Once you observe, that the person is more calm or maybe even had a look towards you, you could change to:

A-lis-ons mov-ing fing-ers; A-lis-ons mov-ing fing-ers …; … repeat. 

Keep voice and beat the same and just change the words without emphasising the name to acknowledge that it is her movement without being overwhelming.

In my experience this approach works especially well with people with profound learning disabilities, and/or autism and is also often a good one for people who are blind, with the addition of verbalising what is about to happen at any given time, of course. It can be used for the first steps of building the relationship, for calming down after an emotional or stressful interlude or in an unsettling environment.

It can also be established as a fun safe place to go back and forth to in-between more experiential/exploring phases of the session.


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Published by

Marilyn Anderson

25 Mar 2021

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