Taylor Siefker with therapy dog Sunny, left, and owner Ashley Jacobus with therapy dog Daisy are shown at Sunshine Institute. Licensed professional counselor Jacobus has aimed to create a sensory-rich therapeutic environment for her clients, complete with bright colors, stuffed animals, Slinkies, hula hoops and more. The goal is to make therapy less threatening, she says. (Photo by Randy Roberts)


Some people are still uncomfortable with the idea of going to therapy, but what about moving your body? Or spending time petting dogs?

A local counselor trying to incorporate all these things said some people are more comfortable with certain approaches than others — but that seeking help of any kind is a sign of strength.

Ashley Jacobus, a licensed professional counselor and owner of Sunshine Institute, has created a sensory-rich therapeutic environment involving bright colors, stuffed animals and alternative seating options so “It’s all about comfort.” The goal is to make therapy “less threatening.”

Mental health care doesn’t have to just be lying on a couch, talking about your childhood, she said.

Jacobus has wanted to be a counselor since she was about 8, stemming from “my own adverse childhood.” But it took some time to feel like she had enough life experience to help others. She completed an internship at Century Health and received her undergraduate degree in business from the University of Findlay, then a master of arts in clinical counseling from Winebrenner Theological Seminary. She now treats children as well as adults, and is particularly interested in helping survivors of trauma.

Jacobus encouraged people to know the warning signs of child abuse, and said often children are “too afraid to say anything.” But the sooner they get help, the better.

While “Kids are so resilient,” treating their trauma early means fewer long-term effects. She said “a lot of self-blame” is internalized, and this can roll over into other aspects of life. For example, perhaps the person can’t function well in relationships or at their work. Addressing trauma early results in fewer of these other issues.

Jacobus said a lot of drinking and substance use is a “coping skill” — that is, it’s a way people choose to cope. And if a parent is a survivor of trauma, and they are using substances to cope, it is likely not a healthy environment for their children — which creates trauma in a new generation, Jacobus said.

She has seen amazing results from a treatment called EMDR (eye movement desensitization and reprocessing), which she explained this way: When you experience trauma, your brain goes into “panic mode.” In essence, it “takes a snapshot” and stays thinking about it. The part of your brain that is capable of being rational stops working, and you’re just stressed. EMDR is bilateral stimulation to integrate the thinking brain. It “widens the communication channel” between different parts of the brain.

And, Jacobus said, experts are learning that trauma is stored in the body. Using movement, like dancing or yoga therapy, can help. Jacobus said there also may be less stigma attached to physical movement as a way to address mental health issues. People are more comfortable with exercise, and it feels more approachable, she said.

She noted that emotions, in general, have physical components. You might feel sick to your stomach, or start to cry: “You have physical reactions to emotional stimuli.” So it makes sense to explore this connection and how using the body can help address emotions.

And sometimes the words just aren’t there. “But the feelings are,” she said. “The sensations are.”

At her practice she has two labradoodles, Sunny and Daisy. Therapy dogs offer unconditional support, she said, adding that a child who has been taught not to trust adults might be able to connect with another less threatening creature. There is also a hormonal response, as while you’re petting a dog you relax.

“It’s a sensory experience, too,” with the repetitive movement of petting the dog, and the smell, sounds and textures you encounter.

In her training, Jacobus has looked for things that are evidence-based, so that insurance will pay for them, as there’s no point in offering care people cannot afford.

She tries to incorporate different ideas so everyone feels welcome, and said what works for one person might not work for another.

“Life is about knowing your priorities and honoring them,” Jacobus said.

And she said what she as a mental health professional thinks is important might not be what the client thinks is important. She aims to learn their priorities, building rapport and creating an environment where there is no “power dynamic” that might create a barrier.

Jacobus said she’s looking forward to seeing how people are able to access their emotional selves. It is a hard process but “it is work worth doing,” she said.

“Every single person alive has something they need to work on,” Jacobus said. “Improving yourself is a sign of strength.”

She said there is a lot of work involved but “I’m not a drill sergeant.” You’ll work, but have fun, too.

She uses Slinkies to demonstrate emotions and hula hoops when talking about boundaries. Play-Doh is part of her practice, too, and it’s not just for the kids. Other clients may be comforted by a stuffed animal, “and that’s for grown-ups, too.”

“I love using emojis,” Jacobus said. She has magnets with emojis on them, which she said children can relate to. She asks which ones look like how they are feeling inside.

Jacobus aims to work with a variety of clients, including the LGBT population, which she said is underserved. Children with developmental delays are also of interest — she said many people don’t realize that they may experience depression, anxiety or loneliness just as anyone else, and are more than just their diagnosis. She’s created sensory activities like lights and a tube a child can crawl through, to create an environment for these children. Jacobus also works with veterans, and said she feels “so grateful” to them.

She said some people are in a place of despair and not feeling like things can get better. But she argues that “Life is worth living. … We can create a life that feels more worth living.”

Jacobus has seen this type of work make a difference, and clients learn good coping skills and a way to “reframe” their past experiences.

She recalled getting emotional when her practice first opened in November: “This means the world to me.”

“We are a world full of hurt souls,” and we need mental health care now more than ever, she said.

Online: www.sunshineinstitute.life

Arthurs: 419-427-8494
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