Catherine M Harris, ATR-BC, RYT 200
Is Art Therapy for Me?
Recently while listening to the podcast Unlocking Us with Brené Brown, I was drawn in to a conversation she was having with her guests on the topic of creativity. In this episode (rereleased on August 18), Brené interviews Jason Sudeikis and Brendan Hunt, co-creators, writers, and actors for the newly beloved TV series Ted Lasso. In discussing the show and its characters along with the inspirations that led to its creation, both Brené and Jason relay what creativity means to them.
Creativity is … connecting the seemingly unconnectable. — Brené Brown
Creativity is … making the invisible visible. — Jason Sudeikis
These definitions have stuck with me ever since I listened to the podcast. I think in part due to the fact that, in just a few short words, they deftly pinpoint some of the inherent benefits of creativity. They also remind me of the practice of art therapy and the inherent benefits that come with the process of making art in the presence of a supportive and knowledgable individual, such as an art therapist.
Even though art therapy has been a profession since the early to mid 20th Century, it is still relatively unknown in many circles. Early in my career when I answered the question of What do you do? with I’m an art therapist, a common response I heard back was, “That’s so cool! … What is that?” Similarly, you may have heard of art therapy too but are unfamiliar with what it means and what an art therapist does. You may have a curiosity about art therapy but are still wondering if it is truly right for you.
If this sounds familiar, I invite you to ask yourself the following questions:
Have you ever felt overwhelmed in your life? Like things were out of your control?
Have you ever felt stuck in patterns that you know are unhelpful?
Have you ever wanted to make a change but were unsure of how to take the first step?
If you answered yes to any of these questions, then art therapy can be a helpful resource for you, and here’s why.
Calming the Mind & Body
To begin with, creating art has the ability to calm the mind and body and reset the nervous system. When we create art, we are using many different parts of the mind that we do not normally use in everyday activities. We activate the logical part of the brain by learning and trying something new. We activate the problem solving part of the brain by picking different colors or materials and then choosing and planning where to place them on the page. While under stress or experiencing the effects of anxiety or trauma, these areas of the brain are shutdown to increase your reaction time and thus enable you to do what you need to do to stay safe and survive in the moment (i.e. hit the car brakes in traffic or pull your hand away from a hot stove). By creating artwork and intentionally engaging these areas of the brain, we are able to bring them back online and begin to think more clearly about how to respond and what to do to move forward.
In getting creative, we also use parts of the mind related to sensory experience through the feel of the supplies in our hands, the sounds that are made when we use those supplies, the movement of the body, not to mention what we see as the artwork visually changes while we work. The area of the mind that registers this kind of sensory experience is closely related to emotional processing as well, allowing us to better access and express emotional experience. Naming and validating our experience of the moment is fundamental. Just naming how we feel, before we even do anything to respond, has the power to calm the mind and body. Yet, because of the effects of stress, anxiety, and trauma on the mind mentioned above, it can be really difficult to put into words how we may be feeling. Thus, art and creativity can still help us express ourselves, even when words fail. Or to borrow from Jason Sudeikis, art gives us the power to make the invisible visible.
Art gives us the power to make the invisible visible.
As you can see, there are many benefits to engaging and using all of these different parts of the brain. For one, we are connecting areas that are often separated and disregulated by stress and anxiety and particularly trauma. In addition, when working and stimulating the mind in this way through art making, there is literally no space left to think about anything else, such as regrets over past experience or worries over the future. This kind of focused, present moment attention can be very calming, not only for the mind but the body as well. Research studies continue to point to changes in our physiology when we engage in creative acts, such as deeper breathing, lower blood pressure and heart rate, even lower levels of cortisol, one of the hormones related to the stress response. These changes correspond with individuals’ report of feeling calmer, less stressed, and more relaxed after participating in an art therapy session.
Seeing the Bigger Picture
In addition to inducing this state of physical and mental ease, art therapy can provide a path to deeper awareness and personal insight. From a place of calm, we are better able to think more clearly, identify our options, and see the bigger picture. Having a tangible image to explore and discuss can help with this shift in perspective as well. As mentioned before, identifying and talking about our emotions can be extremely difficult. It is not something many of us were ever taught or shown how to do effectively. Having a visual image in front of us, along with the lived experience of making that image, gives us something to talk about. Both can be powerful and important sources of information, revealing not only how we are feeling in any given moment but how we respond to those feelings in self-talk and action. Through discussion of both the creative process, what it was like to make the artwork, along with the image itself can give profound insight into how all of these elements connect and whether or not those connections are helping us or hurting us. And thus, to borrow from Brené Brown, art has the power to connect the seemingly unconnectable.
Art has the power to connect the seemingly unconnectable.
From all of this information gained in an art therapy session, there is a lot to be learned. We can learn what practices truly help us find a place of ease when things feel out of control. We can learn ways to identify, express, and thus face our emotions without being overwhelmed by them. We can learn how our emotions impact our thoughts and behaviors. And ultimately, we can learn new ways of being with those emotions and new ways of responding that more effectively promote our health and well-being in the long run.
I truly believe that by way of being human we are all inherently creative, and that this creativity is an inner resource to finding balance, renewing energy, and healing when we actively turn our attention to it. This idea is the very foundation of art therapy and can be harnessed in an art therapy session through both the supportive relationship between the client and art therapist and the knowledge the art therapist brings in different mental health needs and how to use the creative process to meet those varying needs. From education and training in the types of art supplies to use and what to do with those supplies, an art therapist is expertly equipped to guide individuals through both an art making experience as well as a resulting discussion in ways that bring awareness and insight and ultimately relief.
So, if you are interested in…
discovering ways to calm the mind and body when feeling overwhelmed,
gaining insight into why you may be feeling stuck, and
learning new ways to respond that promote your health and happiness,
then yes, art therapy is definitely for you.
Interested in learning more about what art therapy can do for you?
Schedule a free, 20 minute consultation with Catherine to hear how services with HeartSpace Wellness Studio can help you or your organization.