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Understanding Art Therapy: How Art Therapy Works & How Making Art Can Improve Your Wellness

Art therapy is trending. With over twenty years of studying and practicing art therapy (gasp, has it really been that long?!) I've received more questions about what it is and how it works it in the last few years. So, let's dive in.

What is art therapy?

Simply put, it's the use of art (image, color, texture, line, form) within therapy (a therapeutic relationship is vital). From there, it breaks down into two buckets;

  1. art is used as the therapy: you feel better because you make art

  2. art as an intervention: to express, explore, process or understand through art

Yet, it's not as simple as that. There are many considerations art therapists have when working with people. Not all clients benefit from the same approach or mediums. Art therapists are trained in mental health counseling and they are trained in;

  • art history

  • art therapy history & theory

  • the creative process

  • symbolism

  • multiple art mediums (painting, drawing, clay, collage, etc.)

  • how mediums impact people

  • specific art methods for facilitating healing

It's safe to assume that art therapists also have their own art practice. An art therapist often comes to this career because of the impact art has had on their own life, so there is a peer support element that can also exist. An art therapist has experienced suffering too and figured out a few ways art can help to alleviate it.

journal page of green paint, with a yellow door. Words say "creation" and "true relief." There are puzzel pieces scattered around the image.
"Creating opens the door to relief." Intuitive journaling

How does art therapy work?

With surprise and awe, clients ask me "how does it work?" They tell me, "it's the art that helps." There's a delight that people experience when they create something which knows them so deeply. Clients have burst out laughing, shed tears, and had great insights from engaging in art therapy.

Art therapy works for a few reasons;

  1. the therapeutic relationship

  2. the process of creating and materials used

  3. the implicit mind & visual language

Two hands. One blue, One red.
It's special to have a caring person witness and support you in making art.

The therapeutic relationship sets the stage. Art is deeply personal and vulnerable. Having a non-judgemental and supportive person assisting is key. In art therapy, how you talk and create art is different than other spaces, like an art class, at a gallery or museum. As an art therapist, I am supporting my clients in learning how to witness their own mind with the intention of healing. Clients get to be in relationship to themselves in new ways (the art can serve as a symbol for parts of ourselves). Art therapists also share different ways of seeing the art (think about it differently), experiment with new approaches (take healthy risks, tolerate frustration and disappointment) and gather insights from the art itself (communicate with your implicit mind).

The process of creating is a unique and necessary human experience. The process of creating can be integrative, regulating, powerful and joyful. As an art therapist, I might offer a particular medium to a client depending upon what state their nervous system is in. For example, if someone steps into my office and is very angry I wouldn't bring out the watercolors. Rather I would support them in figuring out how to be with the energy of anger and release it from their body. They might write the anger out on a piece of paper then rip it up into tiny pieces. Then we pause and check in with the self. Together, we decide whether it gets cleaned up or turned into something new (notice the symbolism.) For some clients, there might not be words, so writing wouldn't be a way to start. We might kneed clay to let sensation and movement help the nervous system shift. I've had folks spend a session kneading, pounding, pinching, poking and tearing clay. When they are done, they return the clay to the bin. You don't have to make or produce anything for it to be helpful. Art making can be highly sensory and kinesthetic. These elements turn art into a mindfulness activity. When creating, your attention is with what you are experiencing: present in the here-and-now.

Another way the process of creating helps (especially with kids) is learning to figure it out. Sometimes we have an idea of what we want to create, but need to problem solve. Other times, uh-oh, a mistake happens! For some people mistakes, solving problems creatively, or being compassionate with the level ability is hard. The creative process can activate shut-down, anger, feelings of inadequacy, and other tough emotions.

a charcoal sketch of a moon and two figures
"Full moon. There were two of us." An intuitive charcoal sketch.

As an art therapist, I'm supporting people in handling what comes up for them while they are making something. How do we work with this mistake? What emotions arise? Where else do they feel inadequate in their life? Imagine discovering how to transform mistakes and have them be helpful. Or the sense of accomplishment that arises when you've discovered a new way to problem solve a difficult task. It's powerful.

The third reason art therapy helps - the implicit mind. As humans, we are not aware of every thought, memory, or even reason why we do what we do. We are often influenced and act from this unconscious place. The implicit mind holds and operates out of our conscious awareness. It includes;

  • ingrained habits

  • biases

  • deeply rooted beliefs and emotional knowings

  • associations which influence our thoughts, feelings, and behaviors

  • intuition, instinct, gut feelings

  • some types of memories

  • automatic processes

Therapists are often helping their clients understand what's under the surface and pulling information up and into awareness, so clients have can have insights and make changes. However, not all information is stored verbally. Information is stored as color, image and sensation. Art is uniquely positioned to help bring implicit, emotional knowings and associations to the surface. Art is a visual language. Remember that surprise and delight my clients experience that I mentioned? This is what's happening. Specialized information is now out of their brains and bodies and alive in front of them. It's been moved out from where they couldn't see or know it before. This puts clients in a position to not only understand, but actually make changes. My clients even learn how to communicate back and forth with their implicit mind. Yes, you can communicate with the implicit mind through image and color. There are parts of being that only speak this visual language. To underscore, image can come out from us into our consciousness and we can send image back into our unconscious.

one page from an art journal. Two colors of string knotted together within a body shape.
Art journal: "the knots in the body"

Can making art at home improve your wellness?

Yes, yes, yes. Make art. It's really healthy for you.

Art activates our whole brain - it helps our brains integrate. It helps us play. It facilitates peak performance. Art is a positive, healthy, mindful, and nurturing activity. I encourage everyone to find something creative that they enjoy and foster it as a hobby. It can be painting, but it can also be scrap-booking, woodworking, sculpting, knitting, print making, etc. the list is endless. Go explore and see what feels good to you. While virtual art hobbies still have their benefits, I will gently push you to using your hands more tactically and engage with your body more kinesthetically.

There are common barriers for folks who may feel like they are not good enough, don't have the time, or are hyper focused on what the end product is. In American culture, we are given messages about whether we are "good" or "bad" at art. I believe we were lied to about this. Everyone can develop skill within the arts and you don't have to "good" to receive art's bountiful benefits. Here's a few things to keep in mind;

  1. Remember regardless of our age, our brains can change and we can learn new things. Adopt a growth mindset.

  2. Practice non-attachment. If you can free yourself from the expectations that the end result needs to look a certain way, you will enjoy your time making art much more.

  3. When learning "how" to make art (this means new skills, techniques, or about the mediums) practice self-compassion. Mistakes will come up. It won't always be pretty. You might be frustrated or disappointed. You might not "know what you are doing" or feel like you are just pushing color around. This is all normal and a part of the process. Be gentle with yourself.

  4. Schedule time if you need to. Having a regular art practice can be a bit like going to the gym, sometimes it's hard to get there, but we usually feel better when we done.

If you find that you are needing more support in understand how to make healing art or need support with specific psychological issues and want to try art therapy, you can find credible art therapists through the American Art Therapy Association. Try their locator feature here:

Happy creating!

Logo for create art & wellness. A mint green brush stroke of paint


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