by Victoria Force, Child and Family Services
What is art therapy?
Art therapy is an evidence-based mental health practice in which a trained art therapist utilizes art materials and other forms of expression to aid clients in their therapeutic journey. Art therapy can look like traditional talk therapy with art directives and materials used to further the client’s expression and understanding. Materials used in art therapy can be traditional such as paints or drawing materials, but they can also be more nontraditional such as collage and found objects. The goal in art therapy is to foster creative expression in an individual. In art therapy, the process of making art and discussing it is far more important than the piece of art itself.
Why is art therapy important?
The act of making art is intrinsically healing. The acknowledgment of the healing power of art in the early years of psychotherapy is the foundation for art therapy as it is today. Art therapy can offer clients a safe place for expression, a broader understanding of their experiences and emotions, a sense of accomplishment, and a re-framing of life experiences. Due to the large scope of art therapy, it can be offered to almost any population, age, gender, diagnosis, race, creed or other differences. Additionally, experiencing art therapy is not contingent on a client’s art experience. Art directives and materials are designed to be accessible to all levels of experience and engagement.
What does art therapy help with?
While art therapy has been shown to assist clients in a variety of ways, clients who have experienced anxiety and trauma could find the most benefit. Making art can reduce anxiety symptoms in a variety of ways. First, making art slows one’s heart rate and breathing, which, in turn, lowers cortisol levels and racing thoughts. Additionally, a client can understand and re-frame anxious thoughts and beliefs by expressing them in a way other than words. Clients can feel a sense of relief from their anxiety once it is on a page. They can feel as though they have let it go or gotten it out of themselves by drawing or painting anxiety symptoms. Last, clients can gain a sense of control over their anxiety when they are able to create images about their anxiety exactly as they want.
Art therapy has also shown efficacy when processing and healing from one’s trauma. One of the biggest factors of trauma is the engagement and over firing of the amygdala, the emotion center of the brain. This intense emotional reaction is what makes it difficult for people to verbally share their trauma. Clients, especially children, can also feel as though they simply don’t have the words to explain what happened to them. When one creates art about their trauma they are engaging the prefrontal cortex, or the logic center, along with other parts of their brain. Through this process, the client’s brain is able to make more sense of the experience by adding cognitive processing. Clients may also be able to begin to verbalize their trauma through the metaphor of the images they created allowing for a detached perspective. Lastly, similarly to anxiety, once the traumatic event is on a page (or canvas or in a box) a client can feel the sense of relief and freedom from carrying the weight of their experiences.
Art therapy in action
A client I worked with last year was able to find strength and insight through an art therapy session I had with her. This particular client had cut off her family due to their lack of support for her leaving her abuser to raise her children on her own. I asked the client what she would like to draw. The client chose a black oil pastel and began drawing a tree. Partway through her drawing the client stopped, looked at her drawing, then up at me.
“This is too dark.” She said. When I asked her further what she meant she said, “This dark, dead tree is my family. They suck the life out of me; they kill me with their judgments and their pressure to be like them.” She continued, “I need to make my own tree, my new tree with just me and my girls. I need to make my own roots and live my life.”
I then asked the client if she wanted to draw her new tree and she agreed. She created a large, lush tree with her daughter’s names and apples. She had struggled with coming to terms with her decision of leaving her family, but through her imagery, she was able to see just how much they hurt her and begin to take steps towards moving forward.
Art therapy can look like many things but in the end, it is based on personal insight, healing and creating. Art therapy is a unique form of therapy that can serve a variety of people experiencing a variety of circumstances. When words fail, art can speak.
For more information visit the American Art Therapy Association’s website: https://arttherapy.org
About the author:
Victoria Force has been an intern at Auburn since August 2018. She is in her last year of her masters degree in art therapy and mental health counseling at Lesley University in Cambridge Mass. She loves rain, art and coffee and has enjoyed her time serving people at Sound. Force also hosts art therapy workshops for teen identity formation. The next workshop is on January 3rd, from 4 to 6 pm at the Auburn Way location. Email to register.