Thinking back to my childhood and what I used to do for fun, I realized that many of my activities involved art. Perhaps some of you can relate as between summer camps and homework, making posters, colouring images and creating necklaces/bracelets were a staple activity when i was younger. Recently, I bought one of those more advanced colouring books made for adults and was surprised about the effect of the purchase on my emotional health. I didn't know that focusing on colouring a page could be so therapeutic and relaxing, it also helps me release stress and get away from daily anxieties.
While colouring or creating art is beneficial, this is not the same as what has been categorized as ‘Art Therapy’. The term refers to a style of therapy, facilitated by art therapists, where individuals create art and this can lead to addressing personal issues and therefore can be seen as a way to cope with mental and/or physical issues.
Art therapy can be used for people of all ages and with a variety of physical or mental problems as well as illnesses and/or disabilities. Art therapists can work in a variety of settings, like hospitals, senior centres and schools.
In an interview with Online Counseling Programs, Lauren Schlenger, an American art therapist, explained that Art Therapy can be beneficial for individuals’ mental health in three main ways. This kind of therapy allows for a space of Emotional Safety, which refers to a comfortable and uncritical environment which makes it easier for people to understand their emotions. Furthermore, Art Therapy also features an element of Emotional Validation as you can see how your feelings play a part in creating art and it can help ratify them. And lastly, this therapy also has a factor of Emotional Agency as a session of open creativity can help you feel in control of your feelings and perhaps help with managing your emotions.
According to the American Art Therapy Association (AATA), “Art Therapy is used to improve cognitive and sensory-motor functions, foster self-esteem and self-awareness, cultivate emotional resilience, promote insight, enhance social skills, reduce and resolve conflicts and distress, and advance societal and ecological change.”
In an article published on the Psychology Today website, Cathy Malchiodi, an art therapist with over 30 years of experience in the field, described her work with children and art. She claimed that sessions of art therapy helped them briefly forget about their anxieties and facilitated a process of self-regulation. She defines self-regulation as a way to cope and control one’s emotions and reactions to stressful situations. Malchiodi also explains that Art Therapy can enable patients to open up about their emotions more easily rather than regular therapy sessions, as they don’t have to describe traumatic events and can just transfer their emotions from inside their body to a piece of paper. In fact, it can be hard sometimes for patients to relive certain events and find the words to describe them so, an action-oriented approach with Art Therapy could be more useful for certain individuals rather than just speech-based therapy.
As mentioned before, Art Therapy is beneficial for people of all ages who don’t need to have any expertise in the artistic field. For example, a 2001 study published in Western Journal of Medicine looked at how adolescents can benefit from Art Therapy. It also introduced the relevance of the study by analyzing how ‘regular’ therapy sessions are often perceived by teenagers as a resort for individuals suffering from serious mental illnesses. In the study, the patients were asked to create a piece of art using various materials, such as paper or clay, to form a visual representation of their issues. Then the art therapist would oversee the process but not intervene, and the patients could share as much of their interpretation as they felt comfortable with. As a result, the study found that combining art as a form of expression and verbal dialogue to explain this, is a valid and effective way to understand and cope with feelings and conditions like depression.
In the same article where Online Counseling Programs talked to Shengler, they also included insights from Gretchen Miller, an art therapist and member of the AATA board. She also supported the effectiveness of Art Therapy and how it’s not only beneficial when seeking treatment, but it can be a way to promote self-care. Miller claims that it can help you get out of your head where people might anxiously think about the future or the past. Art Therapy can provide a way for individuals to concentrate on the present and do an activity that they enjoy to slow down their thinking process and embrace a more relaxed state of mind.
If you’d like to understand more about Art Therapy and how to use this to cope with feelings of anxiety, emotional pain and stress, you can look at this YouTube channel called Thirsty For Art. Youhjung is an art therapist who provides information about this practice and tips if you’re interested in a career in the field.
Other examples of resources, if you’re interested in reading more about Art Therapy are the following:
- The British Association of Art Therapists (BAAT), click here
- Various resources (e.g. websites, books, podcast, social) to learn more Art Therapy, click here
- Shape Arts is a charity focused on helping people with disabilities through art programmes, click here to read about what they do
- Teapot Trust is a charity which seeks to help children’s wellbeing through art therapy, click here to read about what they do
- Art Refuge is a charity helping refugees through art therapy, click here to read about what they do