Art Therpay: Combination of Psychotherapeutic Techniques, Theories and the Creative Process

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Artists are not alone in their need to express themselves authentically. People have communicated ideas, emotions and experiences through visual form since the beginning of human history. Psychologist Carl Jung was particularly interested in the significance of images and symbolism in therapy and often encouraged his patients to draw and paint their dreams in order to come to terms with their trauma and emotional stress. Art therapy has developed from the concept that art can be used to assist us in expressing ourselves, where words alone cannot. The therapeutic use of art was developed into a formal profession in 1940, The art therapy modality now presents itself as a viable form of treatment and a way to help us to heal, improve psychological, emotional and physical well-being. 

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In basic terms, art therapy is the combination of psychotherapeutic techniques, theories and the creative process. Art as therapy is generally used to explore inner experience through the process of art making or the final product. This can enable people to heal, explore self-expression, achieve personal growth, manage behaviours and emotions and develop new coping skills.Art therapy is now widely used within health care and is delivered in educational settings, prisons, the NHS, charities, social services and private practice. This means art therapists work with a wide range of client groups varying in emotional, physical, behavioural conditions and disabilities. Including but not limited to, depressive and anxiety disorders, trauma and stress related illness, autism, eating disorders, disabilities, personality disorders and cancer. 

Because art therapy primarily focuses on art and the creative process, it can often be a more comfortable and effective form of communication than spoken language. Making it extremely beneficial for non-verbal individuals, those with autism spectrum disorder, learning disabilities, dementia and children. Art can be used as an outlet for symbolic speech, even for those who are articulate and comfortable with verbal communication. 

Recent studies have shown the positive effects art therapy can have on individuals receiving treatment for cancer. As with many physical illnesses, depression, anxiety and low self-esteem are common among cancer patients, art therapy can help to relieve these symptoms by distracting from pain, encouraging body image acceptance and allowing difficult emotions to be expressed. Although art therapy is primarily focused on healing, improving general wellbeing and promoting self-expression, it has been proven to also enhance cognitive function as the act of art making increases self-awareness.

The majority of individuals can participate in art making, especially when encouraged to forget their own expectations of what art should be. In the book ‘Art Therapy in Practice’ Marian Liebmann states that ‘Most art therapists are agreed that art therapy is not about producing ‘beautiful works of art’.’Art therapy is focused on self-expression and inner experience, rather than the aesthetic and the artistic value of artwork. Therefore, no particular skills or talent are needed to engage in, or benefit from, art therapy, just a willingness to explore the creative process. Some clients may fear they lack artistic skill and may be self-critical, this can be worked through during their art sessions. 

Since art therapy uses art making as a primary form of communication people may expect art therapists to interpret the meaning behind their art. While art therapists will work with an individual to explore the meaning of images, just as important is the therapist’s role in providing encouragement, emotional support and help to explore their art making process. While art making is a relaxing and fulfilling activity, the relationship between therapist and client is vital in the therapeutic process of healing, achieving goals and recovery. 

Techniques used in art therapy consist of, painting, drawing, collage and sculpting. Materials used within art therapy each have their own therapeutic properties, using these materials can provide an escape from negative thoughts and experiences and therefore can be self-soothing. Interaction with materials is a crucial part of an art therapy session as it can assist in the process of healing and releasing emotions, and for some people it may also provide sensory stimulation which is proven to boost overall mood.Art therapy provides a safe and facilitating space in which art can be used as a means of self-exploration and self-discovery. Through exploring their art people may become aware of unconscious feelings, which then become available for discussion and further exploration. Margaret Naumburg, who is credited as being one of the first practitioners to use art as therapy described this as ‘Releasing the unconscious by means of spontaneous art expression’ .Because of the nature of art therapy, during treatment clients create a physical product which also presents itself as a record of how the person felt during that period in time. Once a collection of art work has been created, they can be referred back to at any time and compared to other art works to find connections between thoughts, emotions and any reoccurring themes. This can be a valuable source of information when identifying and exploring changes in attitudes and emotions.

Art therapy is delivered in groups or individually depending on the client’s needs and goals. Individual art therapy can be especially useful for individuals experiencing emotions associated with pain, guilt or shame as it can provide a safe and confidential space in which these feelings can be addressed without verbal communication and fear of judgement. Attending group art therapy can be beneficial for individuals who may struggle with social interaction as it provides the opportunity to meet peers, share experiences and allows time to practice some challenging social aspects. Tessa Dalley describes groups as ‘self-sustaining since many members identify with each other’s contributions’.Therefore, a group dynamic can provide the comfort of knowing they are not isolated in their experiences and emotions. If group discussion occurs, members then 3have the opportunity to explore these emotions further. 

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