When Dana Robbins, 45, started working with an art therapist to help with her overall mental health, she was astonished by how liberating throwing paint on a canvas could be.
“I just felt so free,” Robbins said. “I could paint whatever I wanted. There were no rules. And unlike meditation, it wasn’t difficult for me to get to a meditative place because I had something tangible to do.”
As a single mom who leads a demanding life, Robbins also relished the absence of expectations.
“There was no pressure to get it right or to do it perfectly,” Robbins said. “How often in life do you have the opportunity to immerse yourself in something and not have to worry about the outcome?”
Robbins said she no longer sees an art therapist, but the experience of working with one was beneficial, particularly in helping her get in touch with her childhood self — who experienced great trauma. The sense of connecting to one’s younger self is one of the many possible goals of art therapy
What is art therapy?
Art therapy is a form of psychotherapy facilitated by a professional art therapist.
“It’s an expressive therapy practice where people can use art materials, creative expression and the relationship with the therapist to improve their emotional, mental and physical well-being,” said Emily Sharp, an art therapist in New York.
Much like any therapy, the goal of art therapy depends on what the client is aiming to achieve, but that said, the main goal of art therapy is to help clients with self-expression.
“Art therapy is used to help the client express their emotions and also learn things about themselves,” said Lori Gordon, a therapist who offers “intuitive art expression,” a form of art therapy. “It can also be used as a tool to support clients on their exploration journey, whether healing is needed or just for personal growth.”
How does art therapy work?
In an art therapy session, the client and the therapist usually start by talking.
“I would ask how things are going, how the week has been, and then I would ask something like, ‘Would you like to express that visually?’” Sharp said. “Or, if we’re talking about a tough situation or difficult feeling, I would say, ‘Can you consider how you would express that in colors or shapes or textures? What density is the color? What texture does it look like?’”
From there the art-making process begins.
As for the types of visual arts that are used in art therapy, paint is typically the most recognized medium, along with clay, but journaling and other tools may also be used in an art therapy session.
What are the benefits of art therapy?
“The benefits [of art therapy] range from pure enjoyment and meditation to self-discovery and release,” Gordon said. “Once I had a client who was painting, and after they randomly put the paint on the canvas [for] a few sessions, a huge bear appeared.”
The takeaway from the image of the bear?
“Their inner soul was speaking through the bear, they said, telling them they are strong,” Gordon said. “This helped [the client] pivot from fear to freedom.”
Aside from helping one potentially connect with their inner soul, art therapy can also help people find relief from a problem that is weighing them down. For instance, say you’re going through a relationship conflict and having trouble opening up or describing the problem in words. You may paint what the conflict feels like. This helps people gain some distance from the problem, which can feel like a weight is being lifted.
“In a way, art making allows you to externalize what is going on inside so you can take intense thoughts or feelings and put them somewhere else,” Sharp said. “The art materials and paper with which you’re working is like a container to hold things so you don’t have to hold them yourself anymore. There is also a sense of safety in being able to express things metaphorically.”
Who does art therapy help?
Though art therapy is available to anyone of all ages, and no background in art is necessary, Sharp, who provides art therapy to a range of people, including those living with Parkinson’s disease and Alzheimer’s disease, sees a special place for art therapy in the lives of women — particularly those with anxiety.
“Lack of self-trust can be deeply rooted in anxiety and art therapy really helps with that,” Sharp said. “With art therapy, you’re forced to make decisions — to choose materials, color, subject matter, etc. You may, in the process, notice self-doubt coming up. You may hear that inner critic. You can choose to work through it and make your own choices and see that you deserve to take up space.”
Gordon often uses art therapy often with postpartum clients, noting that it gives them a way to reconnect to the world and themselves.
“It is comforting and calming in the storm of the disconnection,” Gordon said, adding that she also finds art therapy useful for women who have suffered abuse, in that it helps them to release anger, disappointment, distrust and shame.
“Art is a good medium because they do not have to talk, but can release pent up emotions in a healthy way,” Gordon said.
Making art at home can help
There’s also a strong argument not just for art therapy — a clinical practice — but for art as therapy, which anyone can do on their own.
“One exercise I really like is drawing a garbage can on a piece of paper and writing above it all the things you want to get rid of in your life — all of them — even just the thoughts,” Gordon said.
Give the negatives colors. Anger could be red; depression could be black or dark blue; frustration could be brown. Then tear up the paper into little pieces and throw it away.
“After we have removed the paper with the negatives, we take another piece of paper, draw a garbage can and turn the paper upside down and say, ‘What do we want to invite into our lives?’” Gordon said. “Write down all the wonderful things we would like to have come into our life. Decorate the paper with stickers and color and even paint — words written in bright colors. This paper we keep and put up in our homes somewhere so we are constantly reminded of the focus on good things we are working toward bringing into our lives.”
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