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For some people, words are easy to come by. When they’re asked about something interesting, traumatic or important, they can quickly find the elegant expressions and salient syllables that can perfectly describe their thoughts, feelings and memories. There are times, however, when the details surrounding an event don’t really lend themselves to words. In fact, there are some issues that are buried so deep in the subconscious that they aren’t even accessible to a person’s higher mind. Describing these issues with words is impossible, as people might not even realize that those concerns exist. Art therapy is designed to help. By using the hands, and tapping into a person’s ability to access the subconscious, therapists hope to help their clients come to a deep understanding of their problems, their strengths and their deep desires.
The Value of Art
During an art therapy session, clients are typically presented with some sort of question, and then they’re asked to produce a piece of art that might answer that question.
Typical assignments might involve:
- Producing a self-portrait
- Creating an image of how others view the person
- Putting emotions in pictorial form
- Creating an image depicting a specific event
People might use ink, paint or even clay to create their images, and some might produce pieces of art that are really astonishing and quite beautiful. It’s not the value and aesthetic beauty of the piece that’s of interest to therapists, however, as the process of creating the art is considered the healing aspect of therapy.
As the art therapy session progresses, the therapist is there to guide the discussion. The therapist might provide the client with the original assignment for the day, and as the project moves forward, the therapist might ask the client to outline his/her specific choices for the art. Examining color choices, size options or symbols could allow the person to come to a new understanding of a very old event, or realize the damage that an unexamined problem is causing.
Some therapists use very intense forms of art making that might seem unusual to people who aren’t artists. For example, in a study in the journal The Arts in Psychotherapy, the author describes a program in which a client is asked to answer the same question twice. One assignment is generated with the client’s right hand, and the other is generated by the left. Sometimes, the two images conflict, which allows the therapist to open up a discussion about buried feelings and playacting. Sometimes the two images mesh, but the client still comes to a new understanding of hidden meanings.
No matter what format the therapist might choose, the art remains a visible part of the treatment process, and the therapy progression. Some therapists provide their clients with their early portraits, and ask them to consider how valid those images are now. If the therapy is successful, and the images grow yet more positive and more supportive each time, the client may feel as though real progress is being made and real healing is taking place. In a way, the art can make an abstraction like “healing” more present to someone in treatment.
Additionally, creating art is also just a fun project for many people. Instead of talking or listening all day, they have a chance to play and explore and make something meaningful. Some clients find that they look forward to their treatment sessions, and they plan to return to their sessions each week. These clients may have been tempted to drop out of their traditional therapy sessions, but the art might keep them coming back for more.
While some clients never become great artists, they may feel that they’re more capable of expressing their deep feelings through their participation in art therapy. For example, in a study in the journal Disability and Society, researchers report that participants felt that art therapy was “cathartic,” and that it provided them with help in a supportive, positive way. These clients may have come to understandings in their art therapy sessions, but they may also have found that the issues that came to them in art therapy merited further inclusion in their mental health therapy sessions.
Art therapy may also, according to a study in Psycho-Oncology, help people to wrestle with issues of spirituality and values. These are abstract concepts that are difficult to deal with in traditional therapy, but they are vital to healing, as people with dysfunction often need to develop a clear moral compass that can help them deal with life’s struggles in a measured, thoughtful way. Those that are clear about their values, their goals and their dreams are able to make choices that are helpful. They might not use drugs, hurt others or harm themselves, for example, as these actions might go against their values. If art therapy helps to clarify these issues, it could be a valuable part of healing.
Starting Art Therapy
It’s important to remember that art therapy is directed by a mental health professional who has specific goals for the clients in treatment. People can’t simply pick up a paintbrush at home and hope to come to a revelation about their lives and feel capable of making transformative changes. Instead, they need to work with a qualified mental health professional who can design a treatment program, monitor its progression and ensure that all goes as planned.
That being said, there’s no harm in using a little art to prepare for therapy. Some people find that drawing in a journal or sketching notes in a book helps them to focus their thoughts and think about what’s most important to them. These practice sessions can also make the creative process seem more organic and natural, so it’s easier to begin to create art in therapy under the guidance of a professional. When this treatment begins, clients should work hard to keep their thoughts open as they create. Focusing on drawing a straight line or keeping colors within a matching palette isn’t as important as accessing deep thoughts and remaining aware of the emotions that seem to develop as the art is expanding. These are the issues the art therapist will want to discuss, so being aware of them is the best way to get the most out of therapy.
Finding the Right Fit
- Have traumatic experiences in their past
- Find it difficult to express their thoughts
- Struggle with issues of identity and self
- Find images easier to use than words
People who have addictions, for example, might struggle to explain how their drugs make them feel, or how their experiences have impacted their sense of self-worth and self-esteem. If trauma complicates the addiction, communication might be even more difficult. Art therapy might be the key that unlocks thought and makes real connections become clear.
Art therapy might also be good for people with low self-esteem, according to an article in the journal The Arts in Psychotherapy. Here, researchers found that giving students art therapy in addition to their standard behavioral therapy resulted in improved feelings of self-reliance and self-esteem. Creating lasting works of art, and tapping into talents they didn’t know they had, seemed to be vital for these clients, and the same might be said of anyone who participates in this form of therapy.
At Axis, we’re interested in using any tool that could help our clients to deal with their issues of substance abuse and/or mental illness, and often, we’ve found that art therapy is an important part of the healing process. Not everyone needs this kind of care, of course, but those who do will find that help at Axis. Please call us to find out more about the treatment programs we provide.