Creativity has infinite benefits for our brain; that’s why it is involved in therapies to treat psychological disorders, enhance mental health and improve the patient’s lives.
Many and many people affirm that the physical process of creating, helped them release stress and feel better.
Is Art Therapy just drawing? And what if I can’t draw? Are Art Therapy and self-care the same? In his article we’ll help you learn the difference and also the basics and principles of Art Therapy ( + some self-care advices to use art to feel better after a long day! )
| What is Art Therapy and how is it born?
Art has been, for thousands of years, a universal tool of communication and self-expression. In history it was necessary to understand and explain concepts, to talk with foreigners, to express feelings and to make public denunciation. It was used to provoke, to unify people and to feel better. Still today we can literally read art, find deep meanings behind strokes of paint and feel emotions while creating and observing.
His consideration in the medical field, however, is pretty recent. The development of what we call today “Art Therapy” has its origin in 1940’s: the term was first coined in England, by the British artist Adrian Hill in 1942, who discovered the benefits of drawing and painting in patients recovering from tuberculosis. Although their recovery did not allow them to go out, art gave them the freedom they needed.
Margaret Naumburg, however, is considered “the mother of Art Therapy” for bringing it to the United States. Moved by her passion for psychoanalysis, she started to see the potential of art in both diagnosis and therapies. She encouraged her patients to be instinctive when creating, using the artistic equivalent of “free associations”, which helped people to deal with strong emotions and express them spontaneously. Of course her work is strongly influenced by Jung and Freud’s thinking.
Art therapy is now a recognized field, pursued by professionists specialised in both therapy and art. This therapy method is really versatile; it takes place not only in mental health settings but also in education, rehabilitation and medical departments. Also the techniques and media used are various and different from each other.
| Benefits of Art Therapy
It is scientifically proven that art has the power to both cure psychic and physical diseases.
Physically? How is that even possible?
Art literally helps reduce pain and improve quality of life in patients with various health issues. Benefits have also been found in people with cancer and medical conditions, for example. All those benefits come due to reduction of cortisol, the primary stress hormone. Stress is totally one of the worst conditions when it comes to illnesses; it’s in fact established that many diseases come (or even get worse) from too much stress.
Some examples could be heart diseases, obesity and diabetes, gastrointestinal problems, depression and so on. But, with this specific therapeutic path, the patient is able to take control of his stress level and so reduce the damages that stress could cause to the body.
Art therapy is also an excellent choice for improving mental health and find a solution to difficulties and struggles. Some of the numerous conditions that art therapy can treat are:
- Anxiety and depression;
- Eating disorders;
- Relationship problems;
- Post-traumatic stress disorder;
- Various psychological struggles.
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| Does it really work?
The efficiency of this therapy has been tested since a lot of time; the categories involved in these studies are almost infinite, but here are just a few interesting examples that I could find about different diseases both physical and psychological.
- Cancer patients
The largest study, made in 2006, included 111 participants. The aim was to test a mindfulness-based art therapy on adult cancer patients.
After those therapies, they investigated improvements about the quality of life, depression, anxiety, and physical symptoms. The findings suggest that also through short-term interventions of art therapy, it is possible to significantly improve the emotional state and symptoms of these people.
- Medical conditions
Various categories of people with medical conditions were tested in 2011, 2012 and 2014:
The study made in 2011 dealt with art therapy with clients with advanced heart failure; the 2013 study addressed art therapy with clients coping with obesity, and the 2014 study addressed art therapy with clients with HIV/AIDS.
Despite the considerable differences between these diseases and the different factors taken into consideration, all these studies proved the potential of art therapy to assist these categories in their physical and psychological conditions and also improve the perception of their symptoms!
- Mental health
Studies conducted on individuals with schizophrenia found out that art therapy had almost no effect, but in individuals with depression, anxiety and psychiatric symptoms significant improvements were found: they mainly depended on the duration of the therapy, and this principle is the same for all the different categories mentioned above.
- Trauma victims
In people coping with trauma the therapy is efficient, but as mentioned in the previous chapter, it mostly depends on how long the therapy process will last.
For example, one of the first studies practiced by Pizarro in 2004 didn’t confirm the efficiency of art therapy: in fact, it wasn’t possible to find successful results;
But it was then hypothesized that maybe the failure of this study was due to the limited number of sessions. Dealing with trauma requires time to process the experience, that’s why they tried to let the therapy last longer.
In fact, it was then tested and confirmed that art therapy was beneficial when it continued for more sessions.
- Prison inmates
It is worth mentioning Gussak’s research on this category. He has studied this field for many years and conducted several studies in 2004, 2006 and 2009. He proved the potential of art therapy, particularly in the long term. In all three studies, there was a reported improvement attributed to art therapy, in the emotional state and behaviour of the inmates.
| How does it work?
Art Therapy implicates a huge variety of creative expressions including drawing, painting, sculpting, collage but also photography, dancing, acting and writing. Any form of expression can be included.
Combined with talk therapy, it can help people express inner thoughts, feelings and memories that are difficult for them to externalize. By itself, however, it could not be enough. In fact, one small disadvantage of it is that, alone, it’s not objective; it has to be part of a conversation to be understood properly, and not a substitute.
In every session, in fact, the patient creates a piece using different materials and techniques; the drawing than carries messages from the patient’s depths: every deep experience and emotion is now “translated” by the therapist, thanks also to a talking session between the patient and the doctor.
| Do I have to be an artist to start this therapy?
Of course, no. Everyone can benefit from art therapy: from experts to people who never touched a pencil before in their life. No experience, talent or particular skill is needed: it only serves as a different communication channel and as a way to get rid of stress and get better mentally and physically.
Many studies proved its efficiency on people of all ages and social positions: from depressed prisoners to sexually abused children, many and many people have experienced positive changes in their life thanks to art.
Researches made on elderly, for example, found in art therapy a really potential and indicate tool for this field. Many studies on elderly people with depression or severe dementia were made; in both cases, art therapy have led to some improvement in the emotional state of clients.
| How to start
First of all, set your mindset and get ready for change. Accepting to start therapy is the first important step of a big revolution in your life, so don’t undervalue it.
Also, prepare your expectations. Art Therapy is not art class; instead, it’s a procedure guided by a specialist that has the aim to relief the patient that is struggling with physical diseases or mental struggles. So, rather than focusing on the result, on the technique or the skill you have, try to concentrate on the emotions you feel while creating, on how it makes you feel and on how your life is improving thanks to art. Understand the importance of the making-of, and not of the result itself.
Contact only specialised structures. Therapy is a delicate operation, and a big responsibility; that’s why it’s always better to trust a competent person who has studied this topic especially to help people.
From this point on you will be guided by the specialist, who will ask you about your past and your struggles, to then together start a creative path that will lead you to healing and happiness.
| Can I do it by myself?
Art Therapy is a mental health profession.
It means that if you think you need some professional support, it would be better if you started a therapeuthical path assisted by an actual art therapist.
Take note that self-care is way different than therapy: self-care includes things that we do for ourselves to feel better. Therapy is a professional tool whose aim is to examine some of the reasons why you are struggling or having difficulties, and then find solutions and improve your life. If you are just looking for a way to release tension and relax at the end of your days or during a stressful period, you can certainly do one or more of these creative exercises to feel better:
–Paint with feelings: for example, making big paint strokes while you’re angry can help you release stress. Painting with awareness can support us in letting go our bad emotions, expressing what we are feeling.
–Write a letter you’ll never send: writing down your inner thoughts it’s easier if nobody is going to read them. Take it all out and you will definitely feel more relieved!
–Sculpt abstract objects: sculpting requires time and focus. If you put all your attention on what you’re creating, and you don’t waste time on some toxic thoughts, your mind will be full of positive thinking and focus on something else. Abstractism leaves room for our imagination and creativity, allowing us to enjoy the process not focusing on the subject but on the material. After each session you will feel more relaxed, and the final result will give you great satisfaction.
–DIY projects: creating things with your hands is really fun and helpful. You can make ornaments for your house, decorations for your garden, little gifts for your friends, anything! The act of creating requires movement, focus, finding solutions and being creative!
-Coloring books: they are really good if you are looking for a distraction. They keep you calm and concentrate on making something pretty!
There are other many exercises that can help you.. find the medias you prefer and experiment to find pleasure in creating. But remember: self-care is NOT a substitute of therapy.
| Top 3 books on Art Therapy
1. “The Art Therapy Sourcebook”
By Cathy Malchiodi
The Art Therapy Sourcebook is one of the most complete books on this topic: it contains general information on almost every aspect of art therapy. It analyses art therapy and talks about its applications; that’s why it is really recommended and accessible to beginners. This book serves both curious people who would seek relief through art therapy as well as therapists and practitioners who’d like to learn new exercises and the basics to help others. It just gives you all the basics about what art therapy is and how you can apply it. This masterpiece also touches topics such as how to create a creativity-friendly environment, how to understand and interpret art and also it gives you some concrete, easy exercises that you can try to do on your own at home.
2. “Child Art Therapy”
By Judith Rubin
This book is still used as a reference to successfully apply art therapy on kids, even if it was written in 1978. It’s also used in art therapist formation and by counselors and social workers. The main topics of this book are how to encourage growth, set goals, measure their progress and work with differently abled children, for example. It explains the basics and any useful technique, and why this therapy performs really well with children.
3. “Art and Healing”
By Barbara Ganim
In this book the author explains the power of healing thanks to the many expressive forms of art. She guides the reader through exercises and prompts that can be really useful to reach self-recognition, to deal with everyday struggles, to deal with physical and mental issues and find strength through art.
- Art Therapy started to be practiced in the 40’s.
- It helps with both physical diseases and mental health.
- It’s combined with talking sessions to reach the patient’s deep inner thoughts and emotions.
- Trust only specialists if you want to start a therapeutical path.
- You can use art to feel better but self-care and Art Therapy are two really different things.
- There are many many books to learn the basics of Art Therapy; the best 3 are “The Art Therapy Sourcebook”, “Child Art Therapy” and “Art and Healing”.
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