What is Art Therapy?
"Art therapy combines the creative process and psychotherapy, facilitating self-exploration and understanding. Using imagery, colour and shape as part of this creative therapeutic process, thoughts and feelings can be expressed that would otherwise be difficult to articulate."
Canadian Art Therapy Association
As an art therapist and a psychotherapist, I provide a safe, respectful and supportive space for youth and young adults to think, feel and explore. Sessions can include clay, collage, paint, pencil crayons and other materials, but can also include writing, or simply talking. Sessions can include some quiet moments too.
Studies have shown that just creating images with art materials is therapeutic, decreasing anxiety and regulating emotions, but often sessions include using the images as a guide for exploring feelings, challenging assumptions and discovering inner strengths. The images created can also serve as a way to connect and communicate with parents, spouses and other important people in one's life. In addition, art therapy is an effective companion to Cognitive Behavioural Therapy, providing tangible coping strategies and tools.
A summary of the benefits
Art therapy invites exploration
- It is a relaxing way to express, explore, and manage experiences, impulses, and feelings.
- It can reveal strengths and new ways of understanding that may shift old views.
- With exploration comes growth, and new ways to manage challenges.
Art therapy provides a sense of control
- Dealing with a health condition, limited mobility, addiction or eating issues, challenging family contexts, or other stressors, can be very difficult. Art therapy can give shape to the chaos – providing some stability and meaning.
- It can restore a sense of wellbeing that feels both affirming and healing.
- It is strength-based, which includes providing a safe place for accepting vulnerabilities and the need for support.
Art therapy helps with understanding & communicating
- It can be a valuable tool for anyone who is reluctant to express themselves verbally (or has difficulty doing so).
- For those who are more talkative, art-making can offer a new way of approaching challenges.
- Images can act as a launching point for explorations, inner dialogue and conversations.
- Artwork often provides reference points for new discussions (with the art therapist, social worker, psychiatrist and often with family members).
Art therapy offers a break
- It can provide a healthy distraction from current challenges, experiences and worries.
- Art therapy can be relaxing and reduce current stresses.
What does scientific research say about art therapy?Neurological research has demonstrated art therapy's ability to reduce anxiety and regulate emotions. Art therapy sessions can reduce activity in the amygdala, lessening fear and anxiety, while increasing pre-frontal cortex activity – the regulator of emotions. Neurological research also specifically demonstrates that art therapy taps into the relaxation response.
Normally the sub cortical regions (nonverbal, non-conscious areas of brain) that hold trauma don't communicate with the frontal lobes (reasoning part of brain). Art therapy allows a connection between the two areas of brain, so expressing and processing can happened concurrently with thinking and reasoning. This allows for the possibility of a shift; emotions and thoughts that are rigid can become unstuck.
In a systematic review of 8 randomized control studies regarding art therapy all but one study demonstrated beneficial effects. Biomedical studies have also demonstrated art therapy's ability to lessen pain and anxiety while having a beneficial effect on the immune system.
The International Society for Traumatic Stress Studies (ISTSS) maintains that art therapy can be effective in the treatment of posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD). The ISTSS position emphasizes the connection between art therapy and the brain, touching on the manner in which the brain processes traumatic events and the potential for reparation through art therapy and other creative art therapies.
Citations available upon request.