When was the last time you were asked to draw a picture?
With new clients, part of my assessment process involves asking clients to draw a picture of their family doing an activity together. Its known as the Kinetic Family Drawing assessment. It can help me understand how the client sees themselves in the context of their family dynamic regardless of their skill level. This is pretty valuable as a therapist. However, many people I have worked with have believed that art therapy would not work for them because they are not “good” at art. This statement tells me a lot about the person who is sitting in front of me. It speaks of vulnerability, judgment, and shame. I hear a small child in that statement who was once told they weren’t any good at drawing. A child who looked at how trees are ‘supposed to’ be painted and compared themselves and felt lacking. A child who was told to stop wasting their time with something as useless as art. A teacher telling them that the way they are drawing is not correct. It happens a lot. Children are discouraged from making art if they have not been judged to be ‘good at art’. It is an injustice to kids and the adults that they are going to become. Why? Because the science is out and it lets us know that art-making, no matter the skill level, is good for you.
There was a study published in the American Journal of Public Health that analyzed the research on how creative experiences affect the health prognosis of individuals with chronic illness, cancer, and trauma. The results showed an improvement in mental health when participants engaged with their creativity, and concluded that there were “positive outcomes for the potential of using art to promote healing(1).” The study did not limit the parameters of the creative medium to drawing or painting. It explored a wide spectrum of the creative process including sculpting, music, and writing. The study validated what expressive therapists have known for many years; using our creativity allows us to process our internal and external worlds. Art-making aids us in coming to terms with our situations. This is extremely important when dealing with trauma and illness. It also can improve our daily lives if we give ourselves permission to make art. As is illustrated in this study art has the ability to reduce anxiety and improve positive mindsets.
The use of art in healing is nothing new. This did not start with the founders of American Art Therapy (Margret Naumburg and Edith Kramer) in the mid-forties. Art has been used in healings since the dawn of civilization and is still used today in ritual among indigenous communities. The Navajo (also known as the Diné ) create unique sand paintings that are “used in curing ceremonies in which [a] gods’ help is requested for harvests and healing”(2).
For the Navajo, the sandpainting is a dynamic, living, sacred entity that enables the patient to transform his or her mental and physical state by focusing on the powerful mythic symbols that re-create the chantway odyssey [healing song] of the story’s protagonist, causing those events to live again in the present. (2)
Although many of us have become separated from the healing practices of our culture of origin, art still has the ability to soothe and heal. We can see in this perspective how art can enhance the way we cope. The symbology of art allows the creator to shift the way they relate to a traumatic event. It can support an individual with depression to change their understanding of their illness. Art-making can also help individuals with anxiety strengthen their sense of calm. Slowly western medicine is starting to catch on the benefits of art and art therapy. However, there is a struggle to find a way to quantify and qualify the healing power of art. This is a challenge, as creative expression is extremely subjective. Paired with the limits of validity that exist within heuristic research, modern medicine struggles with accepting art therapy as an effective method of treatment. Often health professionals feel there has been limited evidence to support beneficial effects outside of self-report by clients. Fortunately, advances in neurobiology have aided researchers in tracking how the creative process impacts us. In another study that tracked the difference between making art and evaluating art on the brain by using MRI scans of participants(3), the findings revealed that those participants who made art showed a significant increase in the functional brain connectivity of the prefrontal lobes over those who just evaluated the art. Functional brain connectivity is connected to an individual’s psychological resilience, memory processing, and self-awareness. These three factors have an important connection with an individual’s ability to process their emotional experience, especially when faced with a significant mental health concern.
In another study, researchers have been able to track levels of cortisol in tests subjects who made art for 45-minute sessions (4). Researchers recorded a noticeable decrease in stress levels by testing salivary cortisol before and after the art-making sessions. Cortisol is known as the stress hormone, when we are in danger it gives our bodies a boost to help us deal with the situation at hand. When people are under constant stress their body makes too much cortisol. According to WebMD “It can derail your body’s most important functions. It can also lead to a number of health problems; anxiety, depression, headaches, heart disease, memory, concentration problems, problems with digestion, and trouble sleeping.” Some of these symptoms may sound familiar as many people today suffer from constant stress regardless of age or profession. Having an accessible way to cope with stress to add to your self-care routine is a great way to improve your resiliency.
It is clear that making art on a regular basis will support wellbeing, improve self-esteem, and build resiliency. Like any new routine, it can be hard to get started. Especially with an activity that people may have been told not to waste time on. We have been conditioned to see the simple act of drawing as only permitted to those that are “good” at art. How can we overcome these blocks? Art Therapy can certainly help, and so can joining a beginner art class or joining a meet-up group through meetup.com. But the first step is to give yourself permission to get creative, to make an image, to explore and experiment. Mostly get ready to make a big mess and not get attached to the outcome. Let yourself have some fun.
If you have not made art for some time then shopping for art materials can feel overwhelming. People tend to gravitate toward something that feels safe and familiar. I often think that is why the adult coloring book market has taken off. And that is a great place to start. Spending time every day working on a coloring page is a great place to warm up to art-making. However, the real benefit is in adventuring outside of the lines, so to speak. Stretch your comfort zone and grab a pad of mixed-media paper and student grade oil pastels from your local arts and crafts store and just explore how they work. They are smoother then crayons and they blend together in a soft buttery way that is very pleasant. Just pick a few colors that are pleasing to you and color the blank page in overlapping spots of color. With no other purpose than to see how the medium feels. Try chalk pastels, watercolor, and acrylic paint. Notice how you feel before and after. Are you having a bad day? Scribble as hard as you can until there is nothing left of an oil pastel. Notice how you feel after. When people start off in art therapy they tend to be wary of the art materials. Often they are worried that they are using them wrong or apologizing if they break a crayon. It speaks to a lot of fear around freedom. It is a forbidden world to be free to create, save for the few artistic people. Some people can experience high levels of anxiety over their art being seen. They are afraid that they wasted the art materials. When they start feeling more confident and give themselves permission to take pleasure in the simplicity of the experience of image-making they find an inner world of information that is ready to pour out.
If you are struggling with a significant mental health challenge like depression, anxiety, or trauma find an art therapist in your area. They can help you by creating a safe place to dive into overwhelming feelings and thoughts. Their goal is to support you in processing those feelings through art and help you build coping skills. Many art therapists incorporate skill-biased therapies like Cognitive Behavioral Therapy or Dialectical Behavioral Therapy. Psychology Today has listings of local art therapists in their directory. So give yourself the gift of creativity.
Give your self the gift of permission to explore, express and make a big beautiful mess.
1. Stuckey, H. L., & Nobel, J. (2010). The connection between art, healing, and public health: a review of current literature. American journal of public health, 100(2), 254-63. 2. http://navajopeople.org/navajo-sand-painting.htm 3. Bolwerk, A., Mack-Andrick, J., Lang, F. R., Dörfler, A., Maihöfner, C. (2014 How Art Changes Your Brain: Differential Effects of Visual Art Production and Cognitive Art Evaluation on Functional Brain Connectivity. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0101035 4. Kaimal, G., Ray, K., and Muniz, J. (2016) Reduction of Cortisol Levels and Participants’ Responses Following Art Making. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5004743/