How can art psychotherapy help me?
Have you ever considered the arts therapies as a treatment option for yourself or a loved one? Art psychotherapy, which is one of the arts therapies (alongside others such as music therapy and dramatherapy) can provide you with the opportunity to express and process your thoughts and feelings in a creative way.
What is art psychotherapy?
So how does it work? Well, in short, it combines psychotherapeutic techniques with creative processes. This might involve hands-on artmaking, digital artmaking or looking at and thinking about artwork with an art psychotherapist.
Art psychotherapy, or art therapy, as it sometimes referred to, can be a profound and rich experience - but it is not always a therapy that comes to mind when we embark on our search for professional support. I’d like to shed some light on what the experience of art psychotherapy is like, and bust the myth that it is only for ‘arty people’. Many people can benefit from art psychotherapy, even those with no prior experience of artmaking. In fact, art psychotherapy has proven to be a real success for the treatment of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) for many military people, who least expected to find their way out of difficult times through painting and drawing.
Contrary to popular belief, you really do not need to be good at art in order to use art psychotherapy. This is because the therapist will support you to use the art materials in your own way, and at your own pace. The artmaking experience is far from an art lesson and you will not be judged on your artistic skill. The therapist will not be expecting gallery-worthy artwork from you, although sometimes very beautiful things are made in therapy, it is certainly not the aim. The artwork is mainly used as a psychodynamic tool, a way of making sense of what is happening in your life, rather than being an exercise in skill or ability. It is often the process of artmaking itself which can be telling, exciting, challenging or even relaxing.
But just to clarify: using art primarily to help you relax is not the same as art psychotherapy, in which the psychotherapeutic relationship between therapist and client plays a crucial role, alongside the process of artmaking. There can be some confusion here, perhaps owing to the term ‘art therapy’ often being used as a generalised term for art activities such as the increasingly popular adult colouring books.
Terminology aside, the beauty of using artmaking during therapy is that it can be incredibly freeing, it is often the case that the colours and shapes used in artmaking start to give form to the unconscious mind and a more coherent image begins to emerge. The image - or artwork, can, in a way, speak for the client or lead them to new discoveries about themselves. Clients often comment that the artwork is helpful when exploring difficult experiences; it can act as an aid to communication, encapsulating what the client has struggled to put into words.
This may be why art psychotherapy is particularly helpful for those who have found it difficult to express their needs verbally to others in the past. We are all familiar with the age-old adage: ‘a picture paints a thousand words’, well sometimes this really is the case. Art, by its nature, is also a great provider of symbolism and metaphor - meaning it can be used in therapy to explore new ways of saying things.
Furthermore, when we create artwork we bring something into the world. The artwork becomes an object with its own physical presence. By putting artwork ‘out there’ within the context of therapy, it can be explored and discussed, offering us new perspectives and deeper insight into one's inner world. Oftentimes, the artwork becomes a container for deep emotions, giving the client new opportunity to move forward in life.
What is it like to attend an art psychotherapy session?
While every art psychotherapist will have their own particularities, art psychotherapy is a regulated profession, therefore anyone using the title ‘art therapist’ or ‘art psychotherapist’ is required to meet HCPC (The Health and Care Professions Council) standards for their training, professional skills, behaviour and health. With this in mind and based on my own practice, I will outline a typical session:
- Firstly, you will be welcomed and invited to explore any pressing matters. The therapist will listen carefully to what you bring up and consider what needs attention.
- Then you will likely move into a period of time for artmaking, or selecting images from a collection. The therapist stays present with you, but you may work in silence depending on what seems right for you at the time.
- Following this, there is an opportunity to reflect on, and review, your artwork or any images that you have selected. The therapist may make observations and consider any themes in the artwork. You and the therapist may respond to the impact of the artwork in light of what difficulties you may be facing.
- You may find that during some sessions there is more emphasis on discussion, and other sessions involve longer periods of artmaking. This fluctuation is normal and usually depends on your needs during each session. You can also expect the therapist to check in with you regularly throughout your period of therapy, to ensure the therapy remains meaningful and helpful to you.
- Sometimes, the therapist may also make artwork alongside you, although there are usually reasons for this outlined beforehand.
- You may need help from the therapist from time to time to get started, or to create something particular you have in mind. Other times, the therapist may step back, so that you can work through feelings of being stuck in your artmaking.
- Learning to face and work with difficult feelings can be a powerful experience. It is often the case that fighting, or avoiding certain feelings or emotions, perpetuates the distress. Therefore working through feeling stuck while artmaking can often allow for a real shift in being.
I hope that this article outlines that art and artmaking can be used in art psychotherapy to bring clarity, and to explore particular themes or issues. An art psychotherapist is skilled in facilitating the use of art materials, so you don’t need to worry if you have never thought of yourself as a creative type. Why not give it a go?
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