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Your Guide to Art Therapy

Updated: Sep 25, 2021

What is Art Therapy, and Why does it work?

"Images are the precursor to language; they are outward projections of the client's inward processes. Through integrative methods, art therapy engages the mind, body, and spirit in ways that distinct from verbal articulation alone. Art therapy is about silencing our inner critic, focusing on the process, and how you feel during it." -Alessandra Macca, MA, RMHI.

"Growth", a pastel drawing with texture effects bringing out hidden layers by Alessandra Macca.

What is Art Therapy?

Art in itself is inherently cathartic and is more than just making pictures. Images are the precursor to language; they are outward projections of the clients’ inward processes. Fifty percent of all neural tissue is directly or indirectly related to vision; much of how we process information and communicate is done with visual perception.

Art therapy is an evidence-based form of psychotherapy that uses both hemispheres of the brain, encouraging the integration of feeling, cognition, and sensation, which can create new understanding. It utilizes art-making and the creative process alongside psychological theory and techniques. It requires NO artistic talent. Art therapists possess a unique understanding of both the effects of art materials and directives, as well as the dynamics of therapeutic relationships and techniques in various psychological models to achieve client goals. It facilitates mental and emotional healing and for those with difficulty expressing themselves, it can unlock their creativity to get past unconscious defenses more effectively than traditional psychoanalysis. If a person cannot verbally communicate their feelings, they can always make art about it.

Art has the ability to communicate when someone is in psychosis, when they are crying out for help, and when are ready to end treatment. We guide the client to use art media and the creative process to explore feelings, reduce anxiety, work through emotional conflicts and trauma, and improve overall functioning. Through integrative methods, art therapy engages the mind, body, and spirit in ways that are distinct from verbal articulation alone. Kinesthetic, sensory, perceptual, and symbolic opportunities invite alternative modes of receptive and expressive communication which can circumvent the limitations of language. Art therapy is about silencing our inner critic, focusing on the process, and how you feel during it. The created work serves as an archive, concretizing client awareness, and understanding.

The Process of Art Therapy

The process varies widely so there is no one way to describe what happens in a session. When a person first faces a blank piece of paper, there might be some resistance or hesitancy to explore feelings so the resultant images may appear tight and controlled, as in a line drawing or pencil sketch; but after some trust is established in the therapeutic relationship, the art process can move towards more expressive activity, which would suggest the client is accessing stronger emotions. Often the client will begin experimenting with more evocative materials at that point, for example, using paint or clay to express feelings like anger, shame, or fear.

The art therapist is knowledgeable about psychological problems and the use of various art media. The process is flexible and individually focused to support the client to find materials and techniques that connect with the issues at hand. As a client becomes more open to the process and discovers more creative resources within, the art product will also change. In art therapy, there is always that creative edge that keeps the process dynamic and contributes to the process of healing.

Role of the Art Therapist

One of the primary roles of the art therapist is to understand how defense mechanisms are manifested in art and the art process. Art therapists aim to use art to reach unconscious content. This can be in relation to the process, product, reaction to the product, and projections on to the therapist in the relation to art-making. The art therapist's role is to encourage the expression of and then to interpret inner childhood conflicts, desires, defense mechanisms, and projections. The therapist aims to maintain a neutral persona that enables the client to project his early conflicted relationships in a transference process.

Approaches to Art Therapy

Art Therapy uses various approaches and techniques. For example, the therapist may ask the client to make a free drawing. This kind of technique allows for unconscious material to surface and enhances creative expression. In structured art tasks and art directives, the clinician elicits client responses or asks clients to use materials in order to address specific clinical issues and needs. Art therapist suggestions and directives are an integral part of treatment: draw how you feel today, draw someone that you miss, draw your favorite food, etc. Directives are embossed in the narrative and can be simple and general or complex and specific. A directive can be direct or symbolic: draw your family or draw a group of people doing something together. Instead of drawing what happened to you when you were abused, you may ask a client to draw a safe space.

The language and the degree of a structure suggested by the art therapy directive reflect the therapist’s orientation. Art therapy can be integrated into the client’s daily life in the form of spontaneous drawing or journaling that the client creates at home and brings to the session. The artwork and the corresponding feelings may be reviewed together with the therapist so that new meaning and understanding are integrated.

Like other forms of therapy, art therapy takes place within the context of a therapeutic relationship. The art therapist provides the ego strength for the client to create and, therefore, heal. The art product becomes a symbol of the relationships between therapist and client. Art increases communication between people who are taking part in therapy since the combination of the arts and psychology creates more opportunities for expression and recovery.

Art Therapy Materials

Art materials can be used to make art or craft. It is the process, not the material, that determines whether it is art or craft. Some examples of materials include paint, pencils, pastels, markers, yarn, wood, clay, magazines, glitter, beads, textiles, cameras, and so much more.

Who can benefit from Art Therapy?

More than just a pastime, art can be an escape, a stimulus, a war cry or a tranquil reprieve. Art-making encourages spontaneity, increases affective range, and promotes self-discipline. Defined as a form of psychotherapy that uses art media as its primary mode of communication, art therapy revolves around this principle of art’s immense power. Art has the ability to change lives, and even to save them. Anyone who is willing to explore feelings through the process of making art can benefit from art therapy.

Adolescents are especially good candidates because they may be resistant to talk therapies and usually enjoy working with art materials. Again, it is not about creating nice pictures. In fact, art therapy is more often a process of making ugly or messy pictures that depict a feeling state, not a final product that is all neat and tied together. Art therapy is about the creative process where the client, in the company of an art therapist, is working and reworking problems via a range of fluid and variable art materials. More often than not, it is the spontaneously created art pieces that are the most meaningful and often help a person find a resolution for specific traumatic experiences.

The benefit occurs when the art made facilitates a sense of mastery over the problem. For example, a client who has experienced years of abuse or neglect in childhood may be able to finally express feelings that had been avoided or pushed out of conscious awareness because they were overwhelming at the time. Images often speak louder than words. With the art therapist's encouragement, difficult feelings can be expressed through making art.

Benefits of Art Therapy (Evidence-Based):

  • improves cognitive and sensory-motor functions

  • fosters self-esteem, self-awareness, and self-identity

  • cultivates emotional resilience

  • promotes insight

  • provides a toolbox of different coping mechanisms

  • enhances social skills

  • decreases levels of depression

  • reduces and resolves conflicts and distress

  • advance societal and ecological change

Physical Benefits of Art Therapy (Evidence-Based):

  • lowers cortisol levels

  • lowers blood pressure

  • reduces anxiety and agitation

  • improves mobility and hand-eye coordination

  • provides sensory stimulation

  • self-care

Art Therapy benefits all of us:

Individuals with or who have experienced:

  • anxiety

  • depression

  • trauma

  • PTSD

  • ADHD

  • eating disorders

  • schizophrenia

  • oppositional defiant disorder

  • aggression/behavioral issues

  • dissociative identity disorder

  • memory loss

  • cognitive deficits

  • infertility issues

  • adolescents

  • miscarriages

  • interpersonal & intrapersonal relationships

  • family conflict

  • substance abuse

  • suicidal ideation

  • apathy

  • lack of contact

  • chronic pain

  • mental problems in the elderly

  • cultural challenges

  • anger

  • insecurity

  • loss of identity

  • gender issues

  • burn out

Alessandra Macca is a Registered Mental Health Intern at Cypress Wellness Center. In her therapeutic work, she uses the art process as a unique vessel of expression. Approaching each session with kindness, curiosity, compassion, and playfulness; recognizing each client and their individual experiences. She specializes in trauma and PTSD, anxiety, and seeing children and adolescents.

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