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The Healing Power of Art

'Art washes away from the soul the dust of everyday life.'

Pablo Picasso

A growing number of studies demonstrate the healing effects of art-making, from reducing cortisol (a stress hormone) to supporting creative problem-solving and cognitive development.

The process of expressive art-making, be it painting, dancing, singing or any other modality, is like putting the tangle of thoughts and feelings that churn within, into tangible form. The art can be seen, reflected on, changed, shared or simply experienced. Often, through this process of creative expression the thoughts and feelings that produced the art shift or are altered.

In this way, art can be a form of creative fluidity or flexibility that introduces new possibilities and alternative perspectives.

One of the tenets of psychotherapy is that flexibility is key to wellbeing, perhaps the foundation of mental health. Indeed, when clients first come to therapy it is usually because they feel 'stuck'.

There are many different reasons why one might feel stuck. The very nature of creativity in art shifts the focus from a place of 'stuck' passivity or impasse, to active engagement with art materials, the thoughts and feelings that are present and a sense of authorship and choice over the art and ones own life.

Sometimes the art-making itself may feel wrong or stuck but simply by engaging with the feeling of being stuck and actively exploring this through art, over time there is movement and eventually change.

'There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you.' Maya Angelou

Creating art can be a way of telling our story, it can stand alone or be accompanied by words. In art therapy the art is shared with the art therapist and a dialogue is encouraged between the art and the client. This dialogue, facilitated by the therapist, can reveal subtleties and differences between the dominant verbal narrative and 'felt experience'. For this reason the arts can be particularly helpful when exploring internal conflict, expressing pre-verbal or traumatic memories and experiences.

The arts can also be used to create distance, for example, a painting might be full of pain but as the person talks about the pain it feels safely outside of them, they are talking about the painting of the pain and able to reflect on it from a distance of safety, not overly identifying with it.

The arts can be used to bring people closer to their feelings and also to create a safe distance. The skilled art therapist will bare the particularities of the client in mind when suggesting use of the arts and monitor the client for signs of dysregulation, facilitating the use of the arts and dialogue with the arts accordingly.

Sometimes when we tell our stories verbally we remain stuck with the meaning we have given them and the words we have used to tell them over and over. When this happens it doesn't matter how many times we tell the story, there is no release from the emotions surrounding the original wound or event. Likewise, we might struggle to convey our full meaning or experience, we might laugh parts of the story off as we tell it, when inside we feel devastated. When using the arts we can sometimes bypass these verbal narratives but perhaps the most important aspect of telling our story through the arts in art therapy, is the feeling of being seen, heard, felt and understood. The arts add layers and texture to our stories, supporting our capacity to express the complexity and depth of feelings and experiences. This, in turn, supports the attuned art therapist to truly witness and be present to the story in such a way that the need to tell it might gradually diminish with the feeling that finally it has been heard, and understood.

There are many different approaches to art therapy. Contemporary art therapy is typically guided by principles of psychotherapy and the art and art-making is used to facilitate expression and communication. Art therapy in this sense, is not dependent on the inherent health benefits of art-making, rather it is relational and specifically focuses on the meaning that is created and altered between therapist and client. In this way, art therapy offers a space in which stories can be told, reshaped and retold, adjusting narratives to form healthier, more flexible stories to support wellbeing.

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