This case study is centered around the exercise of freestyling (improvised, unpremeditated rapping). The activity of free styling is a regular occurrence over the course of our programs, and is an essential aspect of the therapeutic impact.
The youth in this case study was freestyling about topics common to the type of rap music he and his peers enjoyed. Being from a low-income and marginalized community where economic challenges abound, the rap music much of the group tended to listen to, and thus imitate, often glorified drug dealing and other criminal activity. Acknowledging this dynamic, we validated the skillfulness of his expression, and then encouraged him to challenge himself and try to rap about less common topics, such as some of his immediate/positive goals. As facilitators of this exercise, we were also active participants. In this regard, we were able to quickly model some examples of what freestyling about alternative topics might look like, normalizing and de-stigmatizing this type of content. Accepting this challenge, he then began to freestyle about his immediate goal of graduating high school. This shift in focus and content was immediately met with an overwhelming positive affirmation from us as well as his peers in the group.
The clinical decision to not condemn his initial choice of topic, but rather to validate his self-expression by giving unconditional positive regard, served to create a safe and nonjudgmental container. This, combined with the familiar and peer accepted medium of hip-hop, allowed him to explore the totality of his identity in a raw and authentic manner; speaking to both the negative influences of his environment, as well as his personal goals and aspirations. Outside of the therapeutic container of the group, rapping about these negative influences was a regular occurrence for this youth, and one that generated affirmation and approval from his peers. However, within this therapeutic container, he was able to expand the focus of his creative expression to include positive goals, and to do so through rap/freestyling, a manner in which he was still able to garner the important and much needed peer validation.
Additionally, funneling the intention of his goal through hip-hop, a lens which was more authentic and holistic for him than talk therapy, allowed his positive intention to become more fully integrated into his psyche. Being that the activity of rapping/freestyling was already deeply interwoven into the fabric of his everyday life and experiences, utilizing this form of expression to engage with his goal served to weave the intention deeper into said fabric.
Furthermore, the fact that freestyling is a highly rhythmic activity was also a significant factor in his therapeutic experience. Studies have shown that rhythm is one of the most universally effective means of regulating trauma’s impact on the brain and nervous system. Trauma limits access to executive brain functioning, as well as other critical capacities. This youth had experienced considerable trauma over the course of his life and as a result presented with limited capacities and challenges engaging his internal resources. Due to this lack of access to his internal resources he was often in a dysregulated state, and had difficulty focusing and completing tasks, which led to ongoing academic challenges. As is common with traumatized individuals, challenges are often perceived by the nervous system as a threat and can trigger fight or flight responses and reinforce cycles of dysregulation. While achieving the goal of graduation is a challenge for many students, in the context of this youth’s traumatic dysregulation, this goal was viewed as a threat, further heightening his stress response. This increased fight or flight stress response then further limited his capacity to reach this goal, creating an expanding feedback back loop of overwhelm and dysregulation when faced with this challenge, manifesting as an avoidant relationship with the goal. However, the regulating dynamic of rhythm has the power to interrupt and diffuse this feedback loop, allowing a shift in the nature of one’s relationship to the challenge. The process of this youth engaging and expressing his goal through this regulating dynamic substantially reduced his threat response, and as such facilitated a change in his perception of the challenge to one in which the goal became significantly less overwhelming and more attainable.
All of this served to create an experience which had a profound, integrated and lasting impact; shifting how the goal was held, improving his relationship to the goal, and increasing his ability to obtain said goal. Shortly after this experience, this youth made a dramatic turn around in his academic functioning and achieved his goal of graduation.