Art can express what words alone can’t.
Art is a pathway to expression. So much of what we feel eludes description. I see this all the time in my practice as a trauma therapist.
There are times when certain emotions are present – heaviness in the chest, deep fatigue, lightheadedness – but can’t be identified. This is especially the case for people who experience trauma. The fear associated with a traumatic event often prevents our minds from remembering it.
At times, we can recall traumatic experiences only in brief fragments. This type of memory, known as “implicit memory”, is felt in our bodies rather than consciously recalled.
“Art expression is a powerful way to safely contain and create separation from the terrifying experience of trauma,” writes art therapist Gretchen Miller for the National Institute for Trauma and Loss in Children. “It safely gives voice to and makes a survivor’s experience of emotions, thoughts, and memories visible when words are insufficient.”
Art therapy aids many conditions
An art therapist at the Viva Center, Rebeca Carvajal works in the realm of nonverbal emotions. Carvajal became interested in the use of art for emotional expression while working in a pilot program for historically underserved high school students in North Carolina. She was in college and working as a case manager.
She saw how students gravitated toward non-verbal expression when words were unavailable or inadequate to relay their life experiences.
“Art is an intuitive process,” says Carvajal. “It allows people to express feelings they may not even be aware of.”
In 1942, British artist Adrian Hill first used the term “art therapy,” to describe the benefits of making art while recovering from tuberculosis. At the same time, other mental health clinicians such as psychiatrists and psychologists began to reference the use of art in their sessions with clients. Formal training in art therapy would arrive 20 years later at Drexel University Hospital in Philadelphia.
Data shows that art therapy is an effective intervention not just for children, but also for adults. Studies have indicated that art therapy can help reduce and manage depression and anxiety, as well as used to reduce distress in people undergoing cancer treatment. It can also improve the cognitive, emotional, and behavioral functioning of people with dementia.
Carvajal says that art therapy is for anyone of any age and does not require artistic ability. “Everyone is creative and has the ability to express themselves,” she says.
She adds that the process is not “goal-oriented”. The purpose is not to create something. Rather, the focus is on “allowing yourself to be in a process of uninhibited exploration.”
What to expect
Carvajal explains that art therapy sessions often reflect the therapist’s style. It also reflects the therapist’s training, the nature of the issue that is being addressed, and the length of therapy, among other considerations.
However, a common format for sessions involves a warm-up activity. This may include a client creating art using shapes, colors, and lines of anything on their mind with any art material of their choice followed by verbally talking about their artwork and how it connects to anything on their mind.
“We ask about the meaning,” she says.
Like other therapists, the COVID-19 epidemic has required art therapists to adapt their approaches to the virtual space. While challenging at first, says Carvajal, holding online sessions has become commonplace and incorporates more digital tools and objects available in a client’s home. The therapist will ask the client to focus the camera, on what they created so they can ask questions about colors, positions, settings and choices of people and objects.
Interested in learning more about art therapy and whether it can be helpful to you? Contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org to learn more. In addition, you can find a myriad of free resources for support via the Resilient Brain Project.
Regina Tosca, LICSW is a therapist at the Viva Center in Washington, DC. She works with people experiencing grief and loss, including from their work in animal welfare. Other blogs by Regina include “No Holiday Hugs: How can you cope with lack of touch?” and “Cognitive Tips for Chronic Pain Management“