Written by: Mayte Parada, Ph.D. Psychology, Montreal Therapy Centre
Maybe you have an interest in seeing a therapist but you don’t feel that traditional talk therapy is for you? Perhaps you struggle to express your emotions with words and so you have an interest in something more experiential and sensory based. Or, maybe you have a child that would benefit from therapy and are wondering what approach might be best. You may already be using art as a form of therapy and therefore, want to find a therapist that understands this form of expression. If any of this describes you or someone you know, then art therapy may be a good option.
What is art therapy?
You may have some idea of what art therapy is but not a complete picture. You may see art therapy depicted on television or in movies to help kids that are traumatized by abuse or troubled families. Art therapy is much more than that. The field of art therapy is relatively new, however, the idea that art making is therapeutic is actually very old. Art is one of the oldest forms of healing. The visual arts, drawing, painting, and sculpture are powerful and effective forms of communication. Art is used for conveying our history, ideas, feelings, dreams, and aspirations as people. Therefore, art therapy combines the creative process with the field of psychology to help you on your path of self-exploration and self-understanding.
An art therapist will guide you in using various elements like imagery, colours, and shapes as part of this process so that you can express thoughts and feelings that would otherwise be difficult to articulate. You do not have to be an artist to benefit from art therapy. There are no skill requirements, just the motivation to get help and work through your problems with someone who can help guide you in the process. Oil pastels, felt markers, watercolors, tempera and acrylic paints, plasticine, clay, tissue paper and magazine images are the most common tools used in art therapy. Art therapy can be either directive, with the therapist suggesting various themes and materials to explored in session, or non-directive, giving you the greater liberty to explore self-directed themes and materials. This will depend on your needs and the approach of your art therapist.
What can art therapy help with?
The benefits of art for personal growth, self-expression, transformation and wellness have recently been rediscovered (1). Many people find that making art can be soothing and helps reduce stress. Others feel that creating visual imagery helps to solve problems, release strong emotions, recover from traumatic experiences or a major loss. It can even alleviate pain or other physical problems. This method of therapy is used to help people better understand themselves and how they function as individuals and/or part of a family or group.
Art therapy is known to be effective for gaining awareness, reality-testing, problem-solving, revealing unconscious material, catharsis, working through conflicts, integration and/or individuation (2). Along with psychological benefits, art making has physiological effects that include normalizing heart rate, blood pressure, and cortisol levels (3,4). Recently, researchers showed that creating visual art versus simply observing and critiquing visual art improved functional connections in the brain. These improved connections are related to better scores on a stress resistance test (5).
During each session, the therapist offers techniques, subject matter, media, and/or free choices which are important to the changing needs and therapeutic goals of the client. You can make a conscious choice of what to convey through the artwork or begin randomly on any given topic that you want to work on. The therapist can help you by suggesting general or specific themes such as emotions, wishes, dreams, fantasies, plans, self-images, family, environments, situations, etc.
Here are some reasons why art therapy helps:
- Visual thinking. Most of us experience life through images we save in our memories such as traumatic events. Art therapy allows us to put those images on a medium.
- Expressing what words cannot. Some experience and feelings are difficult to express in words, therefore art therapy provides an alternative form of expression.
- Emotional release (catharsis). The process can help to release or cleanse ourselves of strong emotions by putting them onto a medium to discuss.
- Creating a product. Art therapy is a hands-on activity that involves many tangible experiences and feeds our natural interest as humans in creating things.
- Art making is for everyone. No artistic talent is necessary. Drawing, painting and other forms of art are easily available to almost everyone, regardless of age or ability. Everyone has the ability to be creative through art, therefore, all expression is acceptable.
- It is a way of knowing. creating art helps us to express ourselves and helps us to understand our own beliefs and thoughts. We may find reasons for our pain, depression, or anxiety.
How is art therapy different from other forms of therapy?
Art therapists help their clients learn to write down thoughts, emotions, and free associations which relate to their artwork. Young children who haven’t developed their writing yet can dictate their stories or commentary to the therapist who can write things down for them. Consequently, having this material adds to the client’s ownership and responsibility for their own work in therapy. You and your therapist can review your work at any time during therapy. The most important aspect of this is that you can review the work when therapy ends. This is a strong reinforcer because it is clear evidence of the things you gain from therapy and provides a sense of accomplishment (6).
The most familiar way that we know to communicate with others is through verbalization. As a result, we are pretty adept at manipulating words in order to convey what we want to say. We can also refrain from saying what we don’t want to say (7). Art therapy is unique in that it bypasses all verbal defenses and allows the unexpected and unintended to emerge through the art piece. Art is an easier modality through which people can begin to express their inner feelings compared to using words (8).
“Language is something we all master, more or less very well, and we often use scripts that are already pre-made, that we tell many times. Most people stopped making art at around age 10 and therefore, art is something that can reveal the client in new ways because it is not a language they are as familiar with. It is harder to hide behind art than behind words because art is sensory-based and often associated with childhood experiences. When art making, people very often feel it plunges them into their memories rapidly.” Daria Andrzejewska, M.A. Art Therapy, Art Therapist and Marital & Family Therapist, Montreal Therapy Centre
Art therapy is dynamic, meaning that it requires you to participate in your own treatment. The therapist may occasionally share their impressions of themes arising in your work, but most art therapists will help you come up with your own interpretation. They will typically ask you to reflect on your own work since, a) the way you express yourself is deeply personal, b) your experience with making art affects how you convey your feelings, thoughts, and ideas through art, and c) the meaning of art is truly in the eye of the beholder. Never will two people look at a piece of art and have identical interpretations of it. We all have a tendency to project our personal beliefs, impressions, ideas, and feelings onto the images that we see.
Can art therapy be done in a group?
Absolutely! Art therapy can be very effective in a group format. Often in groups, the leader will propose a theme for the session and group members will work individually on their projects, with time for sharing and discussion allotted at the end.
Family therapy is an example of group art therapy and is task-oriented, which means that the family creates art together as a unit. This can be done with discussion or non-verbally. The family unit and the therapist observe and explore the work with interpretation from the therapist. The therapist encourages communication throughout therapy so that group members can share among themselves visually and verbally. It can be very helpful to members of the group who have a difficult time asserting themselves. This will help to limit any overly aggressive members that typically prevent others from being able to express themselves and provides a platform for improving and understanding communication skills.
A great deal of evidence tells us that art therapy is much more than what TV and movies depict. It is clear that the benefits are incredibly broad, serving as an excellent alternative to more traditional talk therapies.
- Leckey J (2011), The therapeutic effectiveness of creative activities on mental well-being: a systematic review of the literature. J Psychiatr Ment Health Nurs 18: 501–509
- Malchiodi, C.A. (1998). The art therapy sourcebook. Lincolnwood, Ill: Lowell House Publishers.
- Stuckey HL, Nobel J (2010). The Connection Between Art, Healing, and Public Health: A Review of Current Literature. Am J Public Health, 100: 254–263.
- Clow A, Fredhoi, C. (2006). Normalization of salivary cortisol levels and self-report stress by a brief lunchtime visit to an art gallery by London City workers. J Holist Health, 3: 29–32.
- Bolwerk, A., Mack0Andrick, J., Lang, F.R., Dorfler, A., Maihofner, C. (2014). How art changes your brain: Differential effects of visual art production and cognitive art evaluation on functional brain connectivity. PLOS one, 9, e116548. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0116548
- Landgarten, H.B. (1981). Clinical art therapy. A comprehensive guide. New York, NY: Brunner/Mazel, Inc.
- Wadeson, H. (1980.) Art psychotherapy. New York, NY: John Wiley & Sons, Inc.
- Rubin, J.A. (1999). Art therapy: An introduction, New York, NY: Brunner/Mazel, Inc.