How can art therapy nourish your soul?
The term ‘art therapy’ is most often associated with visual arts such as painting, sketching and sculpture, used in a therapeutic context to support mental and emotional insight and healing. It is part of a larger category called creative arts therapy, which also encompasses other forms of expressive art such as music, dance/movement, and drama.
Art therapy hinges on the concept that creative processes stimulate and support emotional and mental wellbeing, and creative self-expression is an innate aspect of all human cultures. Art therapy can be particularly beneficial for people who have a learning disability or who have trouble expressing themselves verbally.
Although art has been traditionally used throughout history to support healing and to help people come to terms with their experiences, creative art was not seen as a formal therapeutic modality until the 1940s. Adrian Hill, author of Art Versus Illness, is agreed to be the founder of art therapy. Other prominent practitioners in the field included Edith Kramer, who explored the creative process as a way of preventing aggressive behaviour and empowering people to take control of their feelings.
In Australia, art therapy is a relatively young profession, recognised in the Australian and New Zealand Classification of Occupations. To work under the title of registered arts therapist (AThR), a qualified practitioner must undergo a rigorous program of education which includes a two-year master’s degree, 750 hours of supervised clinical practice and ongoing professional development.
Benefits of art therapy
Art therapy is an evidence-based modality facilitated by practitioners who apply clinical techniques developed from peer-reviewed research to support significant improvements in mental and emotional health. The results of a systematic review suggest that arts-based interventions may lead to a significant reduction of depressive symptoms in elderly people, although further research is recommended. Art therapy has been studied as a way of possibly improving quality of life, self-esteem and social behaviour among people with Alzheimer’s disease.
There is also “initial evidence” to suggest art therapy interventions may reduce depression and anxiety, stress and anger as well as improve coping abilities in adults with cancer, but more research is recommended. It is reported that art therapy may improve symptoms of depression and reduce levels of fatigue in cancer patients undergoing chemotherapy.
Research suggests art therapy may be an effective way to reduce depression in prison inmates, who may be resistant to verbal therapeutic approaches. The results of a systematic review suggest art therapy may significantly reduce the psychological symptoms of trauma. As part of a program intended to improve the social skills of children on the autism spectrum, art therapy is reported to possibly offer “significant improvement” in behaviour.
Art therapy may assist in relieving symptoms related to:
- Alcohol and drug addiction
- Anorexia, bulimia and eating disorders
- Confidence and self-esteem
- Dementia and alzheimer's
- Fatigue, burnout and exhaustion
- Grief, bereavement and loss
- Heart conditions and heart attack
- Learning difficulties
- Love and Relationships
- Memory and cognitive function
- Mental health
- PTSD and trauma
- Schizophrenia and psychosis
- Speech and language issues
- Stress and tension
What to expect from an art therapy session
Art therapy sessions begin with the art therapist asking you about your reasons for wanting to participate. The therapy session might be a one-to-one process, or it might take place in a group setting. The practitioner will explain the process and provide reassurance that artistic talents are not a requirement for a successful session, as well as provide you with the raw materials you need for creating art.
You will then be free to express yourself however you wish through the creation of your artwork. There is no pressure to talk about the art while working on it, but your practitioner will attentively provide you with guidance, support and active listening if you request it. As you express yourself non-verbally, you may experience moments of realisation or changes in the way you perceive what you are depicting, because your creativity can become an outlet for subconscious thoughts and feelings.
Art therapy benefits are believed to come from the creative process itself rather than the artwork that is produced. Normally, your art therapist will not attempt to interpret or decode the artwork, but instead will ask you about what the various aspects of your creation mean to you, how you felt while creating it, and so on. It is recommended to participate in several sessions for lasting results, but the number of sessions you attend is up to you and should be based on how beneficial the therapy is for you.
Please consult with your medical professional if you feel that art therapy might be beneficial for you. They will be able to advise you on choosing a practitioner who is best-suited to supporting you in your health concerns. Don’t hesitate to speak to your creative arts therapist, who will explain the process to you and explore the option of tailoring the session to your individual requirements.