Art therapy: Everything you need to know about this marvelous therapy
What is art therapy? How can is something like art become a tool to help you through depression, anxiety, and even dyslexia? Find out everything you need to know in this guide. We’ll take you through what it is, its techniques, what to expect from a typical art therapy, uses and much more… Read on and enjoy.
What is Art Therapy?- Definition and Purpose
Art therapy is a therapeutic technique where the patient expresses himself through art. This field was born thanks to the relationship between art and psychotherapy. It uses the creative process to improve a person’s physical, mental and emotional well-being. It is not a recreational activity or an art lesson, even though it can be enjoyable.
The person doesn’t have to be particularly talented for this therapy since the idea es to express yourself. Through art, the person can solve issues or even learn to manage their emotions, reduce stress, foster self-awareness, manage impulsive behavior and addictions, develop social skills and improve their low self-esteem.
The British Association of Art Therapists defines it as a form of psychotherapy to treat a wide range of difficulties, disabilities or diagnoses. For example, emotional, behavioral, and mental health problems as well as learning or physical disabilities, brain injury, neurological conditions such as dementia, etc.
On the other hand, the American Art Therapy Association defines that creating art can increase awareness of self and others, cope with symptoms, stress and traumatic experiences, and enhance cognitive abilities.
Its purpose is that through the creative process involved in expressing yourself artistically, it can help people resolve conflicts and problems, develop interpersonal skills, and achieve insight among others.
Studies have demonstrated that art therapy helps memory loss, specifically with Alzheimer patients with memory loss, stroke residual, cognitive functioning, traumatic brain injury, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and depression.
The term art therapy was given by British artist Adrian Hill in 1942 since he discovered the benefits of painting and drawing when recovering from tuberculosis. Other famous contributors to the field where:
- Margaret Naumburg considered the mother of art therapy, she believed children who were allowed creative expression would have a healthier child development.
- Hanna Kwiatkowski who introduced art therapy into family therapy, allowing family members to better identify their roles within the family.
- Florence Cane who taught free artistic expression and emotional creativity.
- Edith Kramer, she helped identity development through art.
Art washes away from the soul the dust of everyday life. – Pablo Picasso
Art Therapy Techniques
There are different techniques that facilitate a person’s emotional expression. Here are the most common:
- Collage: Traditional talk therapy is not for everyone since they can’t find words to complex thoughts or emotions, therefore this technique is perfect for them. Using various tools such as magazines, photos, books, pamphlets, etc. the art therapist guides them to cut and paste images about a story or subjects that are difficult for them to talk about.
- Phototherapy: This helps the patient contact with things in their past through personal photographs, albums, scrapbooks and work through past issues. It’s not the visual aspects of the pictures but the emotional backstory that they convey.
- Family Sculpture: This is another family art therapy where the person with clay or any other sculpting material has to represent each family member. Big figures represent an overbearing figure and can symbolically also show the relationship between members.
- Finger painting
- Making pottery
- Making cards
- Using textiles
Discover more exercises used in art therapy here.
What does an Art Therapist do?
Art therapists are both trained in therapy and art and have mastered in both psychology and human development. Art therapists can work with people of all ages, sex, creed, etc. They can also help individuals, couples, families, or even groups of people depending on the situation. If it’s a group there can be more than one art therapist and they work together as a clinical team.
These therapists are trained for nonverbal responses and in art expressions as metaphors. They focus not on the talent of the production but on what is expressed emotionally not only of the outcome but through the process.
A typical Art Therapy session
Malchiodi explains that art therapy is very different from an art class. In art therapy, the main focus is your inner experience while in art class it’s focused more on art techniques and learning different skills.
The first step is to develop images and expressing these images from his inside world and not from the outside world. An inner view of your world including your feelings, thoughts, and ideas.
Guidance is key in this process and building the relationship so that the person feels comfortable expressing emotions through art. By guidance, the therapist helps the person find a story, description, or meaning to his art.
It can take place in different settings and it’s up to the therapist to provide the materials the client might need. It can be offered individually or as a group therapy according to each person’s needs.
Uses of Art Therapy
There have been several studies that have proved the efficacy of art therapy when dealing with different ailments.
General illness and art therapy
In a 2004 study, women with heart diseases were interviewed and asked to illustrate their illnesses. The use of color, spatial arrangement, and composition were analyzed, and the drawings helped psychologists understand how each woman viewed their condition and helped develop a correct approach.
“During art therapy, people can explore the past, present and future experiences using art as a form of coping”.
Cancer and art therapy
In cancer, it has been important when processing the diagnosis and later on the treatment. In a study involving women with cancer facing the typical emotions of this disease, it was found that art therapy helped them focus on positive life experiences, enhanced their self-worth, maintain a social identity and allowed them to express their feelings.
Wood, Molassiotis, and Payne found that art therapy can improve the process of psychological readjustment to the change, loss, and uncertainty associated with surviving cancer. It also helps the patients feel connected to others in a more enjoyable way.
Art Therapy and Dementia and Alzheimer’s disease
With cognitive processes, researchers subjected dementia patients to a three-week course of art therapy. During the sessions, the patients were encouraged to have discussions and recollect works they admired. The results showed that the patients’ attention was enhanced, likely because the prompt feedback in art therapy compels patients to remain highly attentive. Other scientists showed that art therapy with patients with severe dementia could effectively improve their visual-spatial abilities and to a certain extent delay the deterioration from the disease after engaging in art activities such as painting.
In summary, art therapy helps improve cognitive functions, such as verbal skills, attention, orientation, etc., but has varying outcomes in overall cognitive improvement. It’s important to combine different therapies so as to get better results.
In terms of emotional processes, they also proved that dementia and Alzheimer patients were able to vent emotions through art, particularly anger, depression, anxiety symptoms, and sadness as well as other behavioral symptoms. With artistic activities, the negative emotions were reduced and quality of life improved for them and their caretakers.
Art Therapy and Dyslexia
Dyslexia is usually correlated with high artistic capacities, however, there are not many studies to back this theory. The only thing that scientists and researchers coincide is that dyslexic people see the world differently. Gross and Bornstein think that dyslexia might be due to a difficulty in treating mirror images as the same stimulus ( for example dog as God). Later Rankin found that this pattern in drawings can be identified in people with dyslexia.
Therefore, art therapy is a very helpful tool for people with learning disabilities, specifically dyslexia.
Children and Art Therapy
Art therapy for children has also been a great asset. Since it is non-verbal and sensory-based, for children with autism or not able to articulate emotions it becomes a great way to express themselves. Researchers found that autistic children improved in assertive skills and harming themselves decreased when doing art therapy. Children who have been abused are also able to speak about traumatic experiences through art and self-regulate.
Malchiodi also explains that all art therapies are relational therapies that involve a dynamic between the therapist and the individual, therefore a special connection between the therapist and the child is formed. This is helpful in repairing and regaining secure attachment styles through creative emotional expression.
Limitations of Art Therapy
One of the major limitations is there are no empirical studies proving the effectiveness of this therapy. Also, it’s difficult for adults to want to undergo this type of therapy since they might believe they are not creative enough or are skeptical of the approach.
Results take more time than regular therapy, taking up to three to four weeks to begin to experience its benefits. This might discourage many people to commit to this type of therapy.
Other concerns include the costs associated with the purchase of needed tools, media, and other materials. Obtaining a suitable setting for therapy to take place may also be challenging.
Even though every therapy has its limitations it’s always great to express your emotions through art, you are left with a great feeling and the perks are that you created something.
Feel free to share your thoughts in the comment section below!
American Art Therapy Association. (n.d.). History and background.
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Malchiodi, C. A. (2007). The art therapy sourcebook. United States: McGraw-Hill.
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Kim, S-K., Kim, M.-Y., Lee, J.-H., & Chun, S.-I. (2008). Art therapy outcomes in the rehabilitation treatment of a stroke patient: A case report. Art Therapy: Journal of the American Art Therapy Association, 25(3), 129-133;
Noice, H., Noice, T., & Staines, G. (2004). A short-term intervention to enhance cognitive and affective functioning in older adults. Journal of Aging and Health, 16(4), 562-585
Alejandra is a clinical and health psychologist. She is a child specialist with a diploma in evaluation and intervention in autism. She has worked in different schools with young children and private practice for over 6 years. She is interested in early childhood intervention, emotional intelligence, and attachment styles. As a brain and human behavior enthusiast, she is more than happy to answer your questions and share her experience.