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Here’s why you should try art therapy

Beyond reconnecting with your inner child, there are therapeutic benefits linked to getting creative. You don’t even need to have an artistic streak, just show up! Here’s how.

Art therapy involves using art materials to express and explore your thoughts and feelings, guided by a qualified art therapist, who provides a safe, contained and supported space, explains psychotherapist Samantha Davis. Many people find it easier to relate to a therapist through art because it provides a focus for discussion, exploration and reflection. What’s the intention behind it? During your session, you and your therapist try to understand your processes and creative expression. It can be a powerful experience that enables feelings you’ve been burying for a long time to come to the surface, where you can acknowledge them. Here, Samantha outlines the best ways to benefit from your experience.

Image: Getty

The process

Some art therapists work more directly with their clients, asking them to focus on specific ways of working, whether that’s by exploring a theme, a picture or a type of material – asking a client to draw a house, a tree or to use clay, for example. I prefer to work in a non-directive way, meaning that provided it’s appropriate and safe, I tell my clients they can use the art materials in any way they wish. With this approach, the client leads and can proceed at their own pace, which can be an empowering experience. Overall, the emphasis is on the process of making art rather than an aesthetic product. That means the art you create doesn’t need to be outstanding, aesthetically pleasing, or even realistic – there’s no right or wrong way to make art.

New possibilities

Art materials, which may vary, include paint, pastels, clay, crayons, ink, kokis, collage, sand, charcoal, paper, boards, objects, containers, shoe polish, or a combination of any of the above. Each art material and process may evoke different feelings, and the work you create may reflect the unconscious forces and experiences that shape your life. Different forms of art therapy may include mediums such as painting, drawing, collage, found objects and photography. The wetter the medium (e.g., paint or ink), the less control you have, which allows you to be spontaneous and take risks. The dryer the medium (e.g., pencils or crayons), the more control you have, and the more structured your image can be. My clients often choose mediums according to their needs and feelings at the time (or in the moment), which helps them to express themselves and self-regulate their internal world. Art therapists may guide or facilitate your process (or journey) by offering suggestions around different ways of working or seeing the image.

Image: Unsplash

No limits

You don’t need to wait until a stressful time in your life before you attend art therapy. It’s proved beneficial and helpful to many adults, teenagers and children, both in group and individual settings. Just about anyone can make art and use it to explore their thoughts and feelings. You also don’t need prior experience, and no one judges your work. You can even use it if you don’t have the coordination to hold a crayon or brush, by concentrating on activities using water, sand, or other materials that provide an avenue for communication. In my opinion, art therapy helps you become better at being yourself. The moments during the sessions when you’re not making art are equally as important. You could equate them to the moments of silence during verbal therapy sessions – it all invites a sense of curiosity.

Your life is art

Art therapy is an exploration using the creative process. It symbolises your internal world, allowing you to access your physical and sensory body, which is a form of embodied expression. You effectively use your body as a resource for psychological regulation, release and emotional healing. The art materials build your capacity to do that through their tactile, sensory and kinaesthetic qualities. It’s also experiential and experimental because when you make a mistake, it’s a potential opportunity to make it more manageable, acceptable or better. Here, the art materials symbolise your internal resources, training you to see the choice in your world. Art plays the role of mediator between the left and right brain, the known and the unknown, the conscious and the unconscious. That way, growth, development, healing and transformation can happen. It can be a life-changing and reparative experience. Playing is experiencing something with other people without having to get it right. It’s crucial to be seen, heard and acknowledged without judgment, in the presence of other people, when you’re at your most vulnerable (e.g., at play).

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Art heals

The attendees (or people) in my groups have included those with stress, anxiety, depression and even trauma. Courses and workshops are suited to all adults, including professionals, psychologists, educators, artists, parents and students. Art therapists work in a variety of different settings, with individual clients and groups. Venues may include private practices, clinics or day centres, hospitals, special and mainstream education facilities, social services and prisons. Art therapy is so versatile that corporates enjoy creative workshops in the boardroom or as a team building event.

The mind-art connection

Conventional talk therapy tends to focus on thinking, words and cognition, which a therapist accesses through the left brain. But sometimes talking and thinking can be limiting, too concrete, structured, controlled, or even linear. Or, you might talk about your experience or distress with a few therapists, and yet you don’t get anywhere. But with art therapy, you access both sides of your brain. With some of my clients, I work from the left to right brain (known to unknown), but with others, I work from the right to the left brain, depending on where they’re at at. Regardless of how your brain is wired, getting in touch with your right brain can help you explore, understand, and work through things in a deeper manner. You don’t have to have to know, think about or plan what you create. As a matter of fact, given the right setting, creativity happens spontaneously. It just pours out.

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