Updated: Apr 12, 2021
Healing through Art Therapy
By Lady Advincula, ATR-BC, APCC
Art is all around us.
When we were children, our first introduction to learning was through art-making. This can include cut-paper collages, sand castles, watching cartoons, crayon drawings, etc. As we grew older, there was a point in our lives where we were told that art was only a hobby. In order to become an adult, you would have to choose endeavors that would sustain an income. Now as an adult, you may not consider yourself as an artist, but may experience therapeutic snippets in your daily living. This may include taking a beautiful photo of cotton candy clouds to post on your instagram because it gives you peace when you look at it. You may scribble or doodle on the side of your notebook to help you concentrate or soothe some anxiety during a long work meeting. Someone might maintain a daily sketchbook or diary which they use to help express themselves at the end of the day. Art can also be shopping, deciding what colors and patterns to represent who are to the world. Especially during the COVID-19 pandemic, many people have picked up a new creative hobby to help decrease anxiety, depression, and isolation. We had to learn to adjust, utilizing new coping skills for healing during these uncertain times. That is where art and psychotherapy goes hand in hand.
What is Art Therapy?
Art Therapy engages the mind, body and soul which can help access feelings on a non-verbal level and further assists with verbal articulation. There is an assumption that artistic ability is needed to experience art therapy. With therapeutic guidance, art-making and creativity can help unravel barriers and reveal self expression.
The American Art Therapy Association (AATA) defines art therapy as,
“A mental health profession that uses the creative process of art making to improve and enhance the physical, mental and emotional well-being of individuals of all ages. It is based on the belief that the creative process involved in artistic self-expression helps people to resolve conflicts and problems, develop interpersonal skills, manage behaviour, reduce stress, increase self-esteem and self-awareness, and achieve insight. Art therapy integrates the fields of human development, visual art (drawing, painting, sculpture, and other art forms), and the creative process with models of counseling and psychotherapy.”
Who is Art Therapy for?
There is an assumption that art therapy is only for children but it is for everyone! Art Therapists work in a variety of settings. Some examples include, Hospitals, schools, veteran’s clinics, private practice, psychiatric and rehabilitation facilities, community clinics, crisis centers, forensic institutions, and senior communities.
Do I have to be artistic to benefit from Art Therapy?
Throughout my six years of clinical background, I always get this question. The answer is that you do not have to have any artistic abilities to benefit from art therapy. The reason behind this is because there is an emphasis on the process or the art-making portion of the session versus the product. That is what makes art therapy different from taking an art class. Your artwork will not be graded and you are able to express yourself in non-judgemental space. If stick figure drawing is your jam and what you are most comfortable using, it is very welcomed.
Process vs. Product
Art Therapists mostly remind their clients to focus on the process as the most important part rather than the product. Process art means that there is an emphasis on the experience instead of the resulting artwork that is created.
Process art reminds me of the creation and the destruction of the traditional detailed sand mandalas created by Tibetan Buddhists monks. According to wikipedia, “A sand mandala is ritualistically dismantled once it has been completed and its accompanying ceremonies and viewing are finished to symbolize the Buddhist doctrinal belief in the transitory nature of material life.” This ritual focuses on the process of creating the sand mandala and represents that things are not permanent. Like art therapy, there is problem-solving, exploring, and experimenting that comes with this process experience. Even with the destruction of the sand mandala there is a ceremony. The sand is collected in a jar, wrapped in silk and then transported to a river, where it is released back into nature to spread the holy blessings of the sand mandala.
The Science: Art Therapy and the Brain
Let’s get a little nerdy here. Your brain is divided into two hemispheres. According to Lusebrink, “the left hemisphere is involved in analytical and sequential processes whereas the right hemisphere deals predominantly with intuitive and syncretistic processes in a parallel manner. What does that mean?
The left brain is the more logical, such as in science and mathematics and the right brain involves tasks that involve creativity and the arts. We use both hemispheres during our daily functioning, maybe one side more than the other. In art therapy, you are able to access your right brain during the nonverbal art-making and creating process. Additionally, you use the left brain when you use words to share what you created with your therapist. That is when the magic of healing happens!
How does a typical session look like?
Sessions are either conducted by a masters-level art therapist in an individual or group setting. Art Therapy is like talk psychotherapy, in terms of goals and objectives but utilizing art as interventions. Individual therapy sessions can be catered to the client and their interests and the goals they would like to achieve. Depending on the setting, Art Therapy groups can be offered according to age or themes and can be either open or closed. An open therapy group is where
the session is on-going and participants can join and leave the group as it progresses. A closed therapy group is when participants start and complete the group at the same time.
In a typical session, an art directive is presented, which is the exercise. For example, if a client’s goal is to decrease anxiety around the future. An art directive can be, “Writing a letter to your future self that will be sent to you later on.” After the letter is completed, the client shares this letter and they would process it together. The letter or artwork would be interacted with through psychotherapeutic techniques in order to safely process personal associations. In a group setting, the same format applies. The difference is that participants would take turns to share their artwork with the group with the opportunity for discussion and finding connections with each other.
Expressive Art Therapy
Art Therapy is one of the many forms of expressive arts therapy that is out there. There is music, dance, and drama therapy as well. Like art therapists, clinicians are specifically trained to specialize in one of these arts or all of them. It is that song that you play, random dancing while cooking, or drawing that can relax you after a long day at work. That is because it is very therapeutic. If you see a professional art, drama, music, and dance therapist, they can support you to interpret this artform on a deeper level. A lot of endorphins, which are chemicals produced by the body to relieve stress and pain, are released when you sing or groove to your favorite artist! Why not utilize these hobbies to show yourself some love and help express yourself.
There are so many benefits to the expressive therapy arts. It is a great way to release some stress and gain a better sense of self. Art Therapy is a young and growing field that is widely accepted and has been helping so many individuals out there. It is also a growing career field! (If interested, check out the article about How to be an Art Therapist). Stay sparkly, be creative and be brave!
If you are interested in pursuing art therapy, book one of our therapists via our secure booking platform here
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