Sometimes I get asked the simplest of questions: what happens in Art Therapy? It’s such a straightforward question, and very appropriate one, because Art Therapy is still on the fringes of the therapy field with its various approaches. As we all like to know what to expect when we engage in something new this question deserves a simple answer. I hope this article will help engage more people with Art Therapy and its rich opportunities for self-exploration and healing.
In a nutshell, Art Therapy and Creative Coaching use various creative approaches to explore experiences, emotions and thoughts. This can but doesn’t have to include verbal expression. Through this creative expression of one’s inner world, Art Therapy can unearth deep and strong emotions, some of which might have been hidden or shut away inside us for a long time. It’s useful for a broad range of mental health issues and life challenges, but due to its ability to stir up and explore deep-seated emotions it is important that anyone engaging with Art Therapy has (or is willing to learn and practice) skills of emotional regulation.
The beauty of Art Therapy is that it (re-)engages our imagination and playfulness. As humans, we are born with these but when life gets really tough we can easily get stuck in the difficulty of our situation, struggling to see a way out. We risk losing our abilities to create, imagine and play and anything that can nudge us towards these abilities can contribute to our wellbeing.Conny Weyrich
Some specific questions I have been asked:
Will I be painting and do I need to be good at art?
Art Therapy uses creative approaches and techniques to express our inner world, our emotions, thoughts, experiences, concerns, beliefs. This can include visual art making like drawing or painting, sketching or doodling; it can include movement, exploring gestures we use frequently, sounds and music, or role plays. We might arrange random objects in sandtrays or on tables, arrange images into collages or construct 3D sculptures. We can use clay, fabrics, weave threads and wool. There literally are no limitations to what we can use. I have witnessed wonderful explorations using paper bark, an air conditioning duct, broken sunnies, bent paper clips and a rock. Therefore, anyone can do it, because you don’t need to be an artist, you don’t need art skills or previous experience. You just need to embrace your creativity and your innate desire to play.
What are key principles of the therapist-client relationship?
Like all therapies, it is based on building an open, transparent and trusting relationship between client and therapist. It is my role as therapist to provide a safe space, where we can explore and name all our experiences without fearing to be judged or told what to do, think or feel. I often use mindfulness techniques to support the feeling of safety. Mindfulness helps us to stay in the present moment and can help calm down our amygdala, the brain’s smoke detector which will naturally feel alarmed every now and then when we do important and deep work with our innermost experiences. Another fundamental principle is my belief that everyone is the expert in their own life. No one can know or understand your life, your emotions, your fears and worries, your values and goals, and relationships better than you. My role is that of a guide, not a teacher.
When is Art Therapy beneficial?
Art Therapy can be beneficial in supporting people through any challenging life experience, including mental health challenges, complex trauma, traumatic events, chronic illness. As Art Therapy doesn’t rely on language and the spoken word to communicate, it can be beneficial for those who struggle with articulating their experiences through language. Anyone who is non-verbal, doesn’t speak the local language well or at all (this can for example apply to refugee communities) or those who have lost the ability to speak through illness or injury. Children also find it often easier to articulate tricky experiences through art and play. When language is accessible, I like bringing the exploration back to language. At the beginning, however, suspending our analytical and cognitive problem-solving skills can be particularly beneficial for those who use this part of the brain a lot.
Finding ways to name experiences enables sharing, creates connection and gives us a different kind of control. Being able to summarise what we have discovered helps us implementing it in our everyday life and using it to inspire change. Sometimes, people come to therapy with a specific question or goal. They know which area in their life they want to work on. But when we start walking on this pretty clear path we might still encounter a fork in the road that needs to be investigated or looks intriguing enough to follow. Often, however, the path is less clear, and all we know is that something isn’t working or doesn’t feel good and that certain patterns keep showing up again and again and interfere with the life we would like to lead. A good therapist will guide you along the path and support you in exploring the detours.
What can Art Therapy provide that talk therapy can’t?
A slightly sticky question as I don’t believe in pitching different types of therapy against each other. Ultimately it’s down to what works for the individual. In our complex world, there is room for a vast range of approaches, and often they are complementary and a holistic approach can be most beneficial. But there are some areas where Art Therapy can achieve things that are less accessible through talk therapy. Apart from being a form of therapy for those unable to speak or uncomfortable with talking, Art Therapy can also be effective in exploring traumatic and deeply emotional experiences. During traumatic experiences, the Broca’s area, the language centre in the brain, shuts down (as do various other areas in our brain, especially in the frontal lobes, our rational or executive brain). Subsequently, these experiences simply cannot be expressed in words leading to expressions such as ‘speechless terror’. But creative processes allow us to give them some form, work with them and ultimately integrate them as part of our story. The creative expressions used in Art Therapy also enable us to communicate emotional experiences that we might simply not have words for. Difficult experiences are hard to articulate, sometimes because they come with the choking emotions of shame or embarrassment; other times because they are linked to topics that have the aura of being secretive and something that cannot be shared, whether that’s due to family secrets or perceived or real social norms – as John Bowlby, an important contributor to the fields of child development and attachment theory, said, “What cannot be communicated to the [m]other cannot be communicated to the self.”
In summary: Art Therapy and Creative Coaching can use literally any creative endeavour or activity, and be tailored to the client’s abilities, preferences or interests. Therefore, it can bypass the need for language when this is necessary, desired or beneficial. Like other therapies, a respectful, transparent, safe and trusting relationship with the therapist/ coach provides the sound foundation needed for this courageous work. While it can provide support for a broad range of life challenges its appropriateness and how it might support other treatment approaches always needs to be discussed on an individual basis.
If you have specific questions or are curious, get in touch!
Find out more about my work at Sensemaking Space