Creative expression is as innate to humans as walking or speaking. All humans suffer from respective emotional or physical pain or trauma. Therefore, all humans can benefit from therapy in some way. However, not all humans are built the same or have faced the same experiences, and thus the approach to therapy should be unique to the individual. The process of healing through artistic expression has always been a part of humanity. In recent years, it has been awarded an actual label in the psychology and therapy realm.
To understand what art therapy is and how it is used, the American Art Therapy Association (AATA) describes, “Art therapy [as being] used to improve cognitive and sensorimotor functions, foster self-esteem and self-awareness, cultivate emotional resilience, promote insight, enhance social skills, reduce and resolve conflicts and distress, and advance societal and ecological change.” At a glance, the term can seem vague and raise questions about how exactly it is realized. The AATA would respond by explaining that art therapy works “through integrative methods, [it] encourages the mind, body, and spirit in ways that are distinct from verbal articulation alone.”
For people who are particularly traumatized from life experience that words fail to describe, art therapy is a great alternative to discourse-driven therapy. The use of art therapy is also a great option for those who struggle to connect verbally in general. Some people are more drawn to language, others to physical expression.
Healing through artistic expression may seem like a lofty concept, one that may not avail itself to extensive research by the scientific community. On the contrary, “a small body of studies now exist in which art therapy as a treatment modality has been isolated, measured, and shown to be statistically significant in improving a variety of symptoms for a variety of people at different ages.” – Slayton, D’archer, Kaplan (2010). Outcome Studies on the Efficacy of Art Therapy: A Review of Findings. From children to elders, it is clear that for many, art therapy is an excellent way to process hardships, loss, trauma, and pain, both physical and emotional.
So how might one go about implementing art therapy in their lives? One avenue is to seek out a credentialed art therapist. Less formally, the practice of healing through expression is in fact something one can add to one’s routine. Author and Art Therapist Cathy Malchiodi, PhD, recommends simply buying a small sketchbook. Every day, return to the sketchbook to simply doodle, scribble, or just draw. The point is not to create a masterpiece, but to put to paper a feeling, grievance, or thought. If drawing is something that does not come naturally, Dr. Malchiodi suggests collecting images, postcards, magazines, and creating collages based off of a current mood. In summary, one can implement therapy techniques by depicting symptoms, emotions, or pain through artistic expression and to help facilitate an improved sense of self by building mastery through artmaking. By feeling the art materials involved in the creative process, and seeing a manifestation of emotion in the physical realm, humans are able to analyze and come to terms with what may be posing a challenge in their lives or causing distress.