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Art Therapy

  • Chris Woolston, M.S.
  • Posted March 11, 2013

What is art therapy?

From sketches of cave bears to children's drawings on a refrigerator, art has always been an integral part of humanity. Art therapy uses art and the creative process to help us:

  • reconcile emotional conflicts
  • reduce anxiety
  • build self-awareness
  • solve problems and
  • increase self-esteem

Drawing on dance, drama, and photography as well as writing and the visual arts, art therapy provides an outlet for our inner thoughts and feelings, while giving us a sense of control over our surroundings. (Our ancient ancestors must have found it deeply satisfying to capture huge predators in charcoal and clay.) Art focuses our attention on the present. A person can hardly worry about the future when she's dancing or contemplating a brush stroke.

Art therapy has been recognized as an effective "mind-body intervention" by the National Institutes of Health's Office for Alternative Medicine. Not surprisingly, hospitals, out-patient clinics, nursing homes, and pain centers across the country offer art therapy as part of their treatments. A trained therapist works with a patient to find the art form that best suits his or her interests, abilities, and needs. Then, under a therapist's guidance, the patient creates art projects and discusses them -- responses that give the therapist a better understanding of the patient.

Who can benefit from art therapy?

Creating art has value for everyone. But those with serious illnesses have often found that art allows them to express themselves in non-verbal ways, which are often a release for strong emotions that they can't put into words. Numerous anecdotes suggest that those who gain include people suffering from stress, pain, and anxiety as well as many different types of injuries and illnesses, including cancer, eating disorders, psychoses, and substance abuse. Some of the most dramatic benefits are seen in children. Art therapy helps them face their illnesses and express their deep feelings.

Consider Mary*, an 8-year-old girl whose case was described in the 1999 book Medical Art Therapy with Children. Mary suffered burns over 80 percent of her body when an aerosol can exploded next to a wood stove. Working with an art therapist during her long recovery, Mary made several paintings that gave her a sense of pride and accomplishment: Finally, she had found something that she could do better after the fire than before. She also made a collage of painted bandages ("my colorful pinwheel"), a project that gave her power over her injuries and, she said, actually helped lessen her pain.

Then there's Julie, a five-year-old leukemia patient who made an elaborately illustrated board game called "Kingdom of Cancer." (She even fashioned her own dice, with very high numbers on each side.) The description of the game, in her own words, makes it clear that Julie used her artwork to come to terms with her illness:

"First, we're at home, having a great life. Then we get cancer -- or if you don't get stuck in the cancer swamp, then you get something else...You will get a broken arm, sprained ankle, or an acute kind of cancer. When you make it to the castle (hospital) you will have happy times. You are very happy when you get to the castle because it's the day before your birthday when you turn seven. Oops -- I forgot. We get shots on the way. We get shots in the back and we get bone marrows and we get yucky medicine...But tomorrow you get happy times because it's your birthday."

Parents and doctors can use art to gain valuable insights into a child's symptoms. Researchers asked 30 boys and girls with juvenile rheumatoid arthritis and their caregivers to draw pictures depicting the children's pain. It became immediately apparent that many caregivers had only a dim understanding of the location and severity of the pain -- until they saw their child's drawings.

At the other end of the age spectrum, art therapy can also be an important part of hospice care. An article in Hospice Journal describes the case of Henry, a 76-year-old man dying of lung cancer. Henry had never done artwork before, but a trip to an art therapy studio uncovered hidden talents. He soon discovered that painting and drawing helped him cope with previously unbearable pain.

Do I really need a therapist to use art therapy?

Art therapists can help in many ways, from providing instruction and motivation to finding the right materials. But according to Cathy Malchiodi, director of the Institute for the Arts And Health in Salt Lake City, you don't need professional help to benefit from art. "Painting is really therapeutic in itself, " she says. "That's why I do it. That's why anybody does it."

If you want to make art a part of your recovery but don't have access to an art therapist, just find something that interests you and let it fly. Even if you feel cursed with a complete lack of artistic ability, you'll still feel solace in your work. After all, being an artist is better than simply being a patient, and the personal satisfaction that comes from self-expression can be healing in many ways.

*These names have been changed.

References

Barbara Trauger-Querry, Katherine Ryan Haghighi. Balancing the Focus: Art and Music Therapy for Pain Control and Symptom Management in Hospice Care. The Hospice Journal 1999; 14(1):2537.

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