what is art therapy?
Sometimes there’s a misconception about art being used in therapy, like it’s just about making art and is only for people who are “good” at art. This is not at all the case! Art is simply a tool we use in therapy as a way to explore whatever issue we are dealing with.
Art can be incorporated into the therapy session based on your preference
Art therapy doesn’t have to be all art all the time. It can be as simple as a vision board or art as assignments outside of the session. It is completely defined by you. I have some clients who want a majority of their session to be based on art. They come in and we chat about what’s going on, then we turn towards creating to process and work through their current issues. There are other clients who want mostly traditional talk therapy but are open to small bits of art being incorporated into the session. Art in this case is offered as an alternative way to look at a situation. I have other clients who don’t want art in their therapy and in that case we work through completely talk based therapies. It’s just one more way my therapy practice is customized to you and your goals.
Art Therapy Helps us find Answers
Art can also be used as a tool to help us when we’re stuck and don’t know where to go with life. Often when we don’t know what we want or where we want to be, we are restricted by language. You know you’re in that stuck, restricted place when you keep moving in circular thought patterns. In this case, we can use images to help find answers, goals, or even to find our true passions in life. It can be as simple as pulling images from a magazine to create a vision board.
Art Therapy Helps us work with Emotions
Art can be used cathartically to help process and learn about emotions that we are having a hard time accessing with our logical minds. Emotions are not easily stored or shared using words and can often leave us feeling confused. Trying to talk about those emotions can sometimes lead to more confusion as we attempt to verbalize something we don’t entirely understand.
If you’re dealing with anger that you just can’t describe or understand, you can use something as simple as drawing that anger on paper in an abstract way. This might seem simple but it can be incredibly helpful. You see, anger is a type of energy that is tied up in a part of our mind that isn’t always accessible by logical thought. Anyone who has dealt with furious anger can attest to that! So instead, we use the process of drawing the anger to express that energy. We can even use it as a way to physically see that energy leaving our body in ways that don’t involve breaking things or yelling. Sometimes this simple activity is enough to help clients start the process of releasing, understanding, and letting go of emotions that cause them grief in their lives.
Art Therapy Helps us work with Childhood Memories
Art also helps us to go beyond words. Language is so limiting! We have 2 hemispheres in our brain. The side that is used for langage is the left side, this side is also concrete, problem-solving, and rational. The right side of our brain, on the other hand, is where our emotions are, where our memories are stored. So if we have a memory that is causing pain, say something from childhood, we try to use words to explain that and it can be very limiting. But when we use art we can express that fully. We can use all the different emotions that are stored with that memory- using lines, shapes, colors, textures, different types of materials,
If you’re dealing with a problem that stems back to your childhood, it can be very difficult to get it in words. Often clients feel like they have to explain so many tangents and details to get to the root of a childhood issue. Or they feel like one part of their childhood story is relevant, then quickly feel like maybe it isn’t after talking about it a bit. This is because language is about communicating a story but those stories aren’t always filed correctly when we are children. So to re-live them through words is often a frustrating process. Art can be used to express ourselves in these situations by accessing the true stored memories from childhood, fragmented bits and all. We access the feelings, the emotions, the images. From there it is much easier to recognize what we experienced and how it affected our lives.
Art takes many forms and exists within us all.
Art Therapy Helps us work outside of session time
A lot of times therapy becomes this thing that is something that is one hour once a week, twice a week, or maybe even twice a month. Because we all have so much going on in our lives, and because money can be in the way of attending therapy as often as one would like. Art is something we can do outside of the therapy session that we then bring back into the next session to process.
Let’s say you had a panic attack at your family Thanksgiving dinner. Your assignment from your last art therapy session was to create something that shows what your panic attack looked like, what it felt like. So you can be doing your own work outside of session then bring the pieces in to process in the session, even if that session is a full month from when the panic attack occurred. In this way, you can truly customize your therapy to fit your schedule and your budget while still working on the issues that interrupt your life the most.
Art Therapy Helps us Create the Future
Art can also be used as images created in the mind rather than on paper. In the example with the panic attack, often those experiencing them say they feel frozen in the moment. Through art therapy, we can work to envision the idea of being frozen and then transform that image in the mind to get out of that feeling. Much like envisioning an ice cube slowly melting. This image can be brought up in the mind whenever it is needed to help process and work through panic attacks or other hard situations or feelings.
These images in the mind are especially important when dealing with emotions because those images will be stored in the same area of the brain that processes emotions. Remember, words are stored in another area of the brain and often don’t help completely. Think about this- we say 60,000 words a day. If we say something in therapy that you want to recall later when dealing with hard emotions, how are you going to retrieve those words from the other 60,000 said that day? Retrieving an image is much easier for the mind, especially when under distress.
This is why art therapy is so effective for healing. We store those images differently than we store words. We are more able to visualize things as a memory and see them happening, even if they haven’t happened yet. We are able to see ourselves saying no, being un-frozen, seeing ourselves leaving a relationship, seeing ourselves with more confidence.
Art can help us visualize, practice, and rehearse what we’d like to have happen. A lot of times in therapy when we’re working on a goal (let’s say leaving an unhealthy relationship). If it was really that easy for a person to do, they would have already done it. Often when people come to therapy they’ve already talked to themselves, their family members, and friends. And again- those words- they cognitively know them. But the action of doing them is different because that’s a different side of our brain. There’s emotions and memories connected with leaving a relationship. Those emotions and memories can hold us back from doing what we want to do. When we can visualize how it’s going to happen it helps us to act it out and prepare for it to happen in the future.