“Art washes away from the soul, the dust of everyday life.” Picasso

As I was rising out of an episode, when the struggle to get out of bed and get dressed became a bit easier, I participated in an 8 week art therapy group. Getting dressed, eating, and driving myself there still required substantial mental and physical energy, but upon arriving in the studio, my brain seemed to slightly shft its focus. Instead of attending to the nonstop, negative messages wearing a groove in my consciousness, I was able to concentrate on the physical act of putting a paintbrush in a cool, serene puddle of green paint. In the beginning, I had no idea of what I wanted to paint, no image in mind. But, once my brush swept across a pristine, white canvas, at least for a couple of hours, my mood seemed to benefit from attending to and completing a task.

Image: Molly Canfield
"when I feel good"
Image: Molly Canfield
“When I’m feeling good”

Art therapy is” the use of creative techniques to help people express themselves visually and examine the psychological and emotional undertones within their art.” Goals of art therapy include: exploring emotions, improving self esteem, managing addictions, relieving stress/anxiety/ depression, and coping with physical illnesses or disabililties. The act of creating, no matter the end result, can also benefit those under psychiatric stress. Sometimes the act itself (of creating art) is of benefit to the individual while other times painful, difficult feelings may be expressed through direcct or indirect symbolism within the piece.

Who benefits from art therapy?

Children often have limited vocabulary as do some geriatric patients or those with traumatic brain injury. Regardless of the cause of mental suffering, art provides a safe, supportive space for the expression of scary, difficult to express emotions. Those whose primary language is different from their current environment (English as a second language) and those suffering from post traumatic stress disorder may also find the creation of art to be a nonthreatening way of conveying painful emotions or past trauma. Those living with chronic illness, terminal illness or physical diabilities can “escape” from the stress of their daily lives.

Teens…Use art as an avenue

What group of people can be: irritable, confused, “closed off”, resistant to therapy, easily bored? If you answered ME!, I would add my name to that list. The many positive attributes of art theapy make it especially suitable for teens. The troubled teen may be super difficult to engage, resistant to forming close relationshps to authority figures, and threatened by the loss of control in a traditional therapy session. And, itsn’t a table full of various art materials more interesting to the multifaceted, creative teen mind? Many find the act of creating to be of such benefit that they will share it with the world in the hope that it will inspire, comfort, and/or support other sufferers.

Art Activities for anxiety, autism, learning disabled, teens, adults, pets (not really)

The past several years have seen a plethora of coloring books for adults. The popularity of adult and teen coloring books is testament to the healing, stress relieving power of art. Just the physical act of putting colored pen/pencil to paper fits in well with the CBT concept of mindfulness. In case you’ve missed it or just haven’t caught up yet, mindfulness is the psychological process of bringing one’s attention to experiences occuring in the present moment, Meditation which incorporates mindfulness training is thought to relieve stress and anxiety. In focusing on the current moment, becoming mindful of it, “one can reduce stress, enhance performance, gain insight and awareness through observing our own mind, and increase our attention to others’ well-being. ”

Calm your mind

What does mindfulness have to do with art therapy? By focusing on the current moment, for example the singular act of putting pen/pencil to paper, filling in those blank spaces with color, one’s attention is focused on the task at hand and not on punishing ourselves with worry, grief, anger and so on. The act of drawing, painting, coloring, creating allows our mind to remain present, return our breathing to a more even pace, and allow our physical body to take a break. Art therapy engages nonverbal areas in the brain an provides an outlet when talking about painful, diffficult memories is too overwhelming. Our “undigested memories” can find a place to “live” until we feel able and ready to process them. The adult coloring book business is booming. A search on Amazon for adult coloring books yielded over 50,000 results. Try meditating on that!

Images: Molly Canfield
“When I’m feeling depressed”

Safe Place activity

Finally, I will close with an example of an art therapy activity, suitable for almost any age and functioning level: Safe Place Activity – Teens and children often do not have control over their environments or feel like they don’t. The desire and stuggle to have a safe place is a universal concept, but for teens and children the safe place is often physical as well as mental in nature. Materials such as colored pencils/ markers, old magazines, popsicle sticks, yarn, glue, acrylic paint, poster board, colored paper, fabric will appeal to many age groups.

In a group, talk about the meaning of “safe” for the individual. As clients feel comfortable, ask them to describe what their ideal safe place might be like. As this may be difficult to discuss out loud, in a group setting, they can be asked to silently thnk about this. Provide the above materials to clients and ask them to create/draw/assemble materials for their safe place. At the end of session time, allow clients to talk about what they’ve made. What makes this a safe place for you? For more art therapy activities like this one click here.