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Exploring Art as Therapy

The illustration shows how art as therapy can be used to express emotions and process feelings.

Introduction

To truly recover from a mental health condition, it's imperative that people rediscover their passions rather than masking symptoms with medications, treatments, and maladaptive coping mechanisms. Art as therapy can help people process emotions and traumas and it stands out as a unique and impactful approach to healing. This blog will explore the world of art therapy, examining its history, techniques, benefits, and significance in the realm of mental health.

What is Art Therapy?

Art therapy, also known as creative therapy, is a holistic approach that integrates artistic expression with psychological techniques. It emerged around the 1940s when researchers in the U.S. and Europe began exploring the therapeutic potential of art as therapy. Since then, art therapy has evolved into a well-established discipline, with many universities offering degree programs in the field.

Art therapy encourages free self-expression through various artistic mediums such as painting, drawing, sculpting, and collage-making. By engaging in creative activities, individuals can communicate their thoughts, feelings, and experiences in a nonverbal manner, often revealing insights that may be difficult to articulate verbally.

Harnessing Creativity: How is Art Used as Therapy?

Art therapy encompasses a diverse range of modalities, each tailored to meet the unique needs of individuals. While traditional forms of art therapy involve painting or drawing, there are numerous other approaches, including dance therapy, music therapy, writing therapy, and more.

Dance Therapy

Dance therapy, also known as dance movement therapy (DMT), combines artistic expression with physical movement to promote emotional and physical well-being. Techniques such as mirroring, where individuals mimic each other's movements, allow participants to explore emotions and relationships through embodied expression. It can aid in physical health by increasing flexibility and strength. In 28 randomized controlled trials involving 2,249 subjects, research revealed that 150 minutes per week of dance interventions reduced depression symptoms.

Read our post on How to Ease PTSD Suffering with movement to learn more.

Music Therapy

Music therapy harnesses the therapeutic properties of music to improve mood, reduce stress, and enhance overall well-being. Whether through listening to music, playing instruments, or songwriting, music therapy offers a versatile and dynamic approach to healing. Music therapy has multiple subcategories, including analytical music therapy, community music therapy, cognitive behavioral therapy (CBMT), and more.

Check out our Tips for Building the Best Ketamine Music Playlist to learn more about the importance of music during Ketamine treatments.

Writing Therapy

Writing therapy, or journaling, involves using written words as a means of self-expression and reflection rather than verbalizing feelings out loud. Through techniques such as poetry, storytelling, and journaling, individuals can explore their thoughts, feelings, and experiences in a safe and supportive environment. Research shows that patients decreased mental distress and decreased depressive symptoms and anxiety after one month of positive affective journaling.

Aside from the many different variations of art therapy, certain materials could also be impactful for an individual’s needs, desires, and experiences with art therapy. For example, an anxious client might prefer oil pastels or clay as they offer a hands-on experience with more sensory stimulation that could be calming. Or someone struggling with many different types of emotions might enjoy collage to synthesize their feelings into one art piece. Art therapy includes elements of talk therapy combined with emotional expression to portray thoughts they struggle to verbalize.

Benefits of Art as Therapy in Treatment

Research has shown that art as therapy can yield a wide range of benefits for individuals struggling with mental health issues. Art therapy has been known to be helpful in many areas, including emotional and behavioral problems, along with disabilities, physical illnesses, trauma, brain injuries, and those struggling with general mental health problems (All Psychology Careers, 2021). For example, one article demonstrated that art therapy can significantly reduce the symptom severity of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) by providing a creative outlet for processing traumatic experiences. Discontinuation of therapy led to symptom recurrence; however, positive improvements were noted during treatment. A patient expressed gratitude for art therapy, stating, “The drawings were an excellent way of subconsciously getting down to the real feelings that so many of us have tried to build a wall around. Sometimes these walls need to come down so the real healing can begin.” (Smyth, 2003) O

Additionally, art therapy has been shown to improve mood, reduce anxiety, and enhance overall quality of life for individuals coping with various mental health challenges. By engaging in creative expression, individuals can gain insight into their emotions, develop coping skills, and foster a sense of empowerment and self-efficacy.

Furthermore, art therapy has been found to be effective in addressing the emotional and psychological needs of diverse populations, including elderly individuals and those from marginalized communities including African American clients (Johnson et al., 2006). By providing a means of nonverbal communication and self-expression, art therapy can help individuals connect with others, build social support networks, and cultivate a sense of belonging and community. It is important to have a type of therapy that can be applied to all different age groups, ethnicities, religions, races, sexualities, and genders to ensure accessibility.

Guiding Growth: Understanding the Therapeutic Process in Art Therapy

Central to the practice of art therapy is the therapeutic relationship between the client and the therapist. Through empathic listening, validation, and guidance, art therapists create a safe and supportive environment for clients to explore their innermost thoughts and feelings.

The therapeutic process often begins with an initial assessment, where the therapist and client collaboratively identify goals and objectives for therapy. From there, the therapist may introduce various art materials and techniques based on the client's preferences and needs.

During the creative process, clients are encouraged to express themselves freely and without judgment. Through the act of creating art, individuals can externalize their internal experiences, gaining new insights and perspectives on their thoughts and emotions.

As therapy progresses, clients may engage in various art-based interventions designed to address specific issues or challenges. These interventions may include guided imagery, creative visualization, and narrative storytelling, among others.

Throughout the therapeutic journey, the therapist provides support, validation, and feedback, helping clients navigate their emotions and experiences with compassion and empathy. Ultimately, the goal of art as therapy is to promote self-discovery, healing, and growth, empowering individuals to overcome obstacles and live more fulfilling lives.

Insights from Experts: Q&A with Two Art Therapists

Two different therapists were interviewed regarding questions about art therapy to gain professional insight on how it is applied. Nicole Nakamura supports personal and relational treatment goals and specializes in treating depression, anxiety, PTSD, and addressing other traumatic events. Lane Taplin is a professional art therapist who specializes in aiding clients with trauma, PTSD, anxiety, and sexual abuse. The list of questions is as follows and includes answers from each therapist.

Q: What techniques do you use with art therapy?

A1: Nicole said that she uses differing techniques depending on the client’s needs, but often works with a wide variety of materials such as clay, markers, watercolors, oils, chalk pastels, colored pencils and more.

A2: Lane said that she also uses many kinds of materials and techniques but focuses heavily on the clients’ needs. She gave the example of a client who needs freedom using a more fluid material to aid in them relaxing and letting go.

Q: What art therapy certification do you need practice art as therapy?

A1: Nicole: got a masters degree in psychology after pursuing a combination of art and psychology during her undergraduate years.

A2: Lane: someone interested in pursuing art therapy would need to study both psychology and art in their undergraduate years then get their masters in psychology. After that they need to do the required amount of training hours, engage in supervised training, and pass an exam to become an art therapist.

To become an art therapist, individuals typically need a bachelor's and master's degree in therapy-related subjects that meet the requirements for the field (Panse, 2021). It can be helpful to have formal art training or teaching experience. In the United States, registration from boards like the Art Therapy Credentials Board (ATCB) and passing a written exam are often required for board certification to be an art therapist (Panse, 2021). This ensures proper evaluation and validation of art therapy as a legitimate form of therapy, emphasizing the importance of education and certification in the field.

Q: Are there specific disorders that are better helped by art as therapy than others?

A1: Nicole: art as therapy is applicable to a wide range of disorders and can help with many different mental and emotional struggles.

A2: Lane: she believes that art therapy can be helpful regardless of the disorder and could benefit any client.

Q: Is art therapy a shorter-term or longer-term form of therapy?

A1: Nicole: the length of therapy is heavily dependent on the individual’s needs and both longer and shorter term therapy can be helpful.

A2: Lane: either longer or shorter term therapy can be helpful.

Q: In your experience, is art therapy targeted towards a certain age group or can it be applied to all age groups?

A1: Nicole: in her experience young children and older senior clients are often the most responsive to art as therapy and the creative process.

A2: Lane: though art therapy is often geared towards kids, it can be applicable and helpful to any age group.

Conclusion

In conclusion, art as therapy stands as a powerful and transformative approach to mental health treatment. By integrating artistic expression with psychological techniques, art therapy offers individuals a unique opportunity to explore their thoughts, feelings, and experiences in a creative and nonverbal manner. Whether through painting, dancing, music, or writing, art therapy provides a safe and supportive space for healing, growth, and self-discovery.

As society continues to evolve, it is essential to recognize the importance of art as a form of therapy in addressing the complex and multifaceted nature of mental health issues. By embracing creativity and artistic expression as therapeutic tools, we can expand our understanding of mental health treatment and provide more inclusive and holistic care to individuals of all backgrounds and experiences. In this way, art therapy serves as an expressive, non-invasive, and impactful form of mental health support.

If you're interested in exploring art as therapy, please visit the Art Therapist Credentials Board to find a credentialied art therapist near you.

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