Art Therapy: How Creative Expression Can Heal

IMAGE Children and adults who have been exposed to unspeakable trauma, as well as those suffering from depression, anxiety, or other serious mental or physical illnesses, can reap enormous benefits from the healing process of art therapy—a therapy which uses paint and paper, glue and scissors, images and colors to symbolically express the depth and intensity of emotional pain. Art therapy can be a way for people with physical or emotional pain to heal.

What is Art Therapy?

The American Art Therapy Association (AATA) defines art therapy as "a mental health profession in which clients, facilitated by the art therapist, use art media, the creative process, and the resulting artwork to explore their feelings, reconcile emotional conflicts, foster self-awareness, manage behavior and addictions, develop social skills, improve reality orientation, reduce anxiety, and increase self-esteem."Although human beings have used art as a mode of expression for thousands of years, art therapy was not recognized as a distinct profession until the 1940s. Psychiatrists began to become interested in the artwork created by patients with mental illness. At the same time, educators were also paying attention to children's artwork as it reflected their developmental, emotional, and cognitive growth. Within a few decades, hospitals and rehabilitation centers were incorporating art therapy with their traditional psychotherapy programs.Special techniques are often particularly useful in helping patients express their feelings, develop social skills, solve problems, reduce anxiety or resolve emotional conflicts. In the unstructured approach, patients might select from a variety of materials and media (paint, pastels, clay) and use them however they choose, allowing unconscious material to rise to the surface. Then the therapist might ask the client to draw a family picture, which can help elicit complex family dynamics such as unhealthy patterns of relating or poor communication skills.Groups of people struggling with other issues, such as cancer survivors, might work together to create a collage or mural that can then be used to stimulate discussion of coping strategies. Neurologically impaired adults in nursing homes and in senior citizen centers can use art therapy techniques such as free-drawing, mask-making and finger-painting to help even nonverbal patients perform life review, express regrets, resolve unresolved losses, and come to terms with issues such as aging, grief and fear of death.

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