What Is Art Therapy?
Art Therapy is an interdisciplinary form of psychotherapy generally based on psychoanalytical or psychodynamic principles. The language of visual art - colors, shapes, lines, and images - speaks to us in way which words cannot. Art therapy is a modality that uses the nonverbal language of art for personal growth, insight and transformation and is a means of connecting what is inside us - our thoughts, feelings, and perceptions - with outer realities and life experiences. It is based on the belief that images can help us understand who we are and enhance our life through self-expression.
How Art Therapy Works.
The practice of Art Therapy works across health and medical fields and may incorporate clients’ use of various visual art forms such as drawing, painting, sculpture and collage. Some art therapists also offer digital art therapy (on iPad), phototherapy, play therapy and sand tray.
Art therapy is a therapeutic and diagnostic tool where therapist and client develop a dynamic interpersonal relationship, with clear boundaries and goals. It differs from traditional art in that the emphasis is on the process of creating rather than on the end product.
Art therapy is a creative process, suitable for all ages, and particularly for those who have in the past experienced, or may now be experiencing life changes, decisions, challenges, trauma, illnesses or disabilities causing distress to self or family.
Art therapy works by contributing to changes in a client's inner world, and towards the development of a more interrelated sense of self, with increased self-awareness and acceptance.
The advantage of art therapy is that even though children and adults are not always able to verbalize what is happening for them or how they feel, interaction in art therapy may be totally non-verbal until there is confidence to communicate verbally. The art helps hold that quiet space. Alternatively there are those who may over-verbalize, blocking feelings and thoughts which need expression; here interaction may be totally verbal until there is courage to make a mark on a blank piece of paper, work with, make a mask, or create, or even destroy, an artwork. In other words, art contributes to a fine balance within the relationship attending to more aspects of one's personality than would otherwise be accessible.
The artwork in each session is a confidential record showing patterns of feelings, thoughts and behaviors. While the therapist and client work together to understand the product of each session, this product must be seen as a reflection of meaning for that person, through their own process of discovery.
The art therapist provides a safe, non-threatening space and invites the individual (or group) to explore their issues by using whatever variety of media he or she feels is appropriate and comfortable during the session. Art therapists have specialized training that reflects their interdisciplinary practice ad prepares them to provide such a space.
Some art therapists have an undergraduate degree in fields such as Visual Arts, Psychology, Nursing, Social Work, Occupational Therapy or Education. Most art therapists have graduate degrees in Marriage & Family Therapy and Art Therapy Psychology, Clinical Social Work, or Counseling Psychology, with specific emphasis on Mental Health, Drug and Alcohol or other addictions, Counseling, Gerontology, Family Therapy, and Child Psychotherapy, and more.
How Does Art Therapy Help?
Integrative approaches involve two or more expressive therapies to foster awareness, encourage emotional growth and enhance relationships. This approach distinguishes itself by combining modalities within a therapy session.
Integrative approaches are based on a variety of orientations including arts as therapy, art psychotherapy, and the use of arts for traditional healing. Creative arts and expressive arts therapies are not merely subsets of play therapy and have a long history in mental health with distinct approaches. Arts therapies are different from play therapy because they integrate knowledge of art with principles of psychotherapy and counseling.
Who benefits from art therapy?
Art therapy is practiced in mental health, rehabilitation, medical, educational, forensic, wellness, private practice and community settings with diverse client populations in individual, couples, family, and group therapy formats. Art therapy is an effective treatment for people experiencing developmental, medical, educational, and social or psychological impairment. Individuals who benefit from art therapy include those who have survived trauma resulting from combat, abuse, and natural disaster; persons with adverse physical health conditions such as cancer, traumatic brain injury, and other health disability; and persons with autism, dementia, depression, and other disorders. Art therapy helps people resolve conflicts, improve interpersonal skills, manage problematic behaviors, reduce negative stress, and achieve personal insight. Art therapy also provides an opportunity to enjoy the life-affirming pleasures of art making.
You don’t have to be an artist!
Art Therapy it is not about artistic skill but about what is experienced and learned through the creative process. The expression of one’s experience into an image or form helps one gain insight. The creative process can be relaxing and joyful, which is in and of itself therapeutic.
Judy Rubin, PhD, ATR-BC, HLM shares her experiences as a pioneer of art therapy and discusses changes in the profession over time.
Though it’s been more than 50 years since Dr. Judy Rubin had her television debut as the “Art Lady” on “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood,” Fred Rogers impact on Rubin’s career remains.
Art Therapy, Trauma and Teenagers
Communication through creative arts is seen by many in the mental health field as the most appropriate and least stressful way to assess and treat sexually abused children. They have also found that children and are more easily engaged through art making (related either directly or indirectly to the traumatic event) than through talking. Criticisms raised by some therapists about the efficacy of talk therapy to access and process traumatic memories are supported by recent developments in neuroscience. Research shows that traumatic memories are stored in the right hemisphere of the brain, that art directly accesses the right brain, and that creating art is an effective methodology in recalling, processing and resolving stored traumatic memories. Creating art also stimulates the left hemisphere functions of the brain through, for example, planning and organizing. Art making therefore engages both hemispheres and allows for both implicit memory (non-verbal, perceptual, somatosensory memory) and explicit memory (narrative memory) to integrate traumatic memories. Creating art allows for a safe degree of distancing between the content of the imagery and the self, allowing the child the opportunity to reflect, integrate, reframe, and practice mastery over his or her traumatic experience.
Read about neurodevelopmental art therapy
Three tenets of art therapy:
1) The process of creativity is healing and life enhancing
2) Materials and methods utilized affect different types of self-expression
3) The therapeutic relationship is essential in the healing process
These three tenets, as they define the profession of art therapy, are all underscored and then proven with neuroscience theory and applied evidence.
“Art is an essential component of human civilization. Art is expression beyond conversation. It booms, dies, then comes back ten times bigger. Art is the one thing that will last in a civilized, or not, society. And it invented the idea of distant expression...” A male 13-yr-old former client with learning differences and ADHD