People often ask me, “What is art therapy and how does it work?” Art therapy is a form of psychotherapy that uses creative expression to facilitate emotional healing. It is a therapeutic forum available to all ages regardless of whether one has ever held a paint brush.
10 ways art therapy is an agent for emotional healing:
1. Symbolic expression: Art opens doors when verbal communication is challenging. It allows for symbolic expression through which an image can tell a story and provides insight into a person’s inner world. Often, an image can express what words cannot. When clients are hesitant to talk about their emotions, I let them know that they don’t have to. Sometimes painting a few brushstrokes, cutting images out of a magazine, or shaping a piece of clay is all they need at that moment to lead to a powerful realization and self-awareness.
2. Healthy outlet for overwhelming emotions. Creating art can be a cathartic experience; an expression of many intense emotions without ever saying a word. When emotions are externalized through art, they are less debilitating and coping with problems is a less overwhelming endeavor.
3. Having a witness. While the process of creating art can itself be a cathartic experience, art therapy with a trained therapist who witnesses and guides the client, is vital to the healing process. Having a therapist be a “third hand,” to see, hear, and reflect with empathy has been found to significantly reduce stress, lower anxiety, and increase positive emotions.
4. Accessing and utilizing the right side of the brain. When creating an image, the right side of the brain contributes creativity, images and feelings. Art therapy helps bypass the analytical filters and language barriers otherwise normally triggered by the left side of the brain so that emotions can be easily accessed and expressed.
5. Freedom to express regardless of skill. Art is a safe and non-threatening method of self-expression; one need not have any artistic skills to benefit from art therapy. A stick-figure drawing that takes 5 minutes can often times communicate as much or more than an intricate painting that took 5 hours to complete.
6. The power of metaphor: One’s personal narrative can be communicated through metaphorical imagery. Using a metaphor in a picture provides an emotional safety net to share unconscious thoughts and feelings. A client’s drawing of an old, decaying tree can be his or her way of representing feelings inside the body, without the discomfort a direct conversation about them.
7. Expands self-awareness. Artistic expression allows clients to bring to the surface that which may be buried in the unconscious and allows clients to have a deeper and broader understanding of themselves. Art is a means of unblocking that which has been stuck. It helps people to gain insight and explore newly discovered feelings.
8. The creative process is a healing process. The process of creating art brings clients into the here and now, providing a healing experience of being mindfully present. The physical act of creating provides an opportunity to focus on the artwork rather than on anxious thoughts.
9. Improves self-esteem and enhances self-image. By experiencing, expressing and sorting through emotions, and examining current choices through art therapy, clients are empowered to become more confident in their ability to solve problems and realize their capabilities.
10. Provides a concrete representation of the healing process. While the product is never the goal of art therapy, it does provide a visual, concrete reminder of the healing journey through therapy. Having a tangible reminder of the art therapy process can be very beneficial with meaningful impacts long after therapy has ended.
There is no exact formula for art therapy as the process is individual to each person’s needs and offers a unique experience for every client. In my sixteen years of clinical experience working with children, teens and families, I have witnessed the powerful benefits of creative expression in a therapeutic forum.
Sara Feinberg MA, LCAT, ATR-BC, is a licensed and board-certified art therapist with a Master’s degree in Art Therapy from New York University. She maintains a private practice in Ramat Bet Shemesh and also provides remote supervision for art therapists working towards their ATR certification.
She has over sixteen years of clinical experience working with children, adolescents, and families. Her specialties include helping children and families cope with medical procedures and serious illnesses, bereavement counseling, anxiety, selective mutism, and aliyah adjustment.
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