When someone asks you to think of a memory, what pops into your head? Is it a word, a phrase or a sentence? More often than not, it’s actually an image, a person’s face or a flashback. So how would you use the written word to describe that memory? It’s a bit of a challenge, isn’t it? It is for this very reason that art, through its freedom of thought, has become a form of therapy and healing. Sharon Carvalho discovers how suppressed and unconscious thoughts can come up to the surface through art therapy
THE THERAPEUTIC PROCESS
From a curative point of view, over the years, art has found itself a role in society that allows a person to communicate their feelings. “If you think about great art, the piece that comes across as having passion may not be the most aesthetic creation, but it makes you feel emotions on a deeper level. It takes a great amount of courage and bravery for artists to express themselves through a medium. That expression is a form of therapy. It allows the artist to emote through a medium that isn’t verbal,” says Andrew Wright, Clinical Director at Art Therapy International Centre (ATIC).
THE CLINICAL SIDE
The act of expressing emotions that can’t be verbalised is where the clinical side of art therapy comes in. “There is research in neuro-science that shows us how trauma can cut off the side of the brain that registers the act,” explains Andrew, “Art, play and other creative therapies can access that part in a non-threatening way.” In situations like this, a triangular relationship is formed where the art is the third person. This allows a person to explain a trauma they have experienced, which is an intimidating process in itself, and explore their thoughts and feelings in a manner that is comfortable. It is through this aspect that people suffering from issues such as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder can work through their emotions and find closure.
A DIAGNOSTIC FORM
With regards to using art to help with a diagnosis, therapists are trained to understand the process. “There are
different ways to assess the artwork. There are also cultural differences with the way art is perceived,” says Sara Powell, Director at ATIC. “Colour and symbols are subjective but therapists are trained to underpin the work that comes up in therapy,” she adds. For example, with eating disorders such as anorexia and bulimia, there are parallels that can be seen with the medium used. Sara, through her years of experience, has found that those suffering from anorexia tend to use controlled mediums such as pencils but those that are bulimic will opt of large quantities of paint. She explains that this underpins the disorder in itself where anorexia is about control and starving your emotions and bulimia is about stuffing your feelings and then releasing it in a binge.
Sara adds, “Sometimes a person that comes in for therapy claims that they are angry but their art is tight and
controlled. This shows us that regulating their emotion is at the crux of the problem and that the person needs to be shown how to constructively express how they are feeling.”
OTHER FORMS OF ART THERAPY
There is a whole population who are unable to verbally or cognitively express themselves and for them, art, music, dance, movement and drama are alternative outlets that can be used to tell their story. “Sand trays are used too! Sand, whether wet or dry, has a soothing quality too. Clients can build walls, hide things, use figurines to recreate a scenario and tell the story of challenges they have faced,” adds Andrew.
Feeling stuck in relationships is a common problem faced by adults in this region and art gives the person a safe way to express themselves. “We give them activities to work on separately and then bring them together to put projects together. This helps with conflict resolution because it forces them to share resources and work together in a creative way,” explains Sara.
Adults are well versed in telling a person what they want to hear and this comes through with therapy too. “Art therapy can be scary for some,” says Andrew, “They do not understand the concept that it is therapy and not an art class. That they are not going to be judged based on what they create.” With the process being less of a medical model, it allows people to be less threatened. With adults, especially those with children, if they see their child learning through an art project, they are more inclined to be receptive to the form of therapy. “We seldom have the ability to change things that have happened to us but we have the ability to change our artworks into something positive. That is what creates balance, acknowledging that we all face challenges but having the resilience to accept them,” says Sara. In the end, you can’t force a person to address an issue. Therapists have found that sometimes clients need a break to process their emotions and can then come back when they feel stronger. She adds, “People have a fear of not being perfect but when they are given permission to make mistakes, it helps break down barriers. And even if one mark is made on the page, it is a step in the right direction.”
IDENTIFYING THE AFFLICTION:
Anorexia– Controlled mediums such as pencils
Bulimia– Large quantities of paint
Depression– Dark charcoal, dark colours and eavy mediums to express the weight the person feels in their soul
Anger– Lots of red paint because the emotion is explosive
Anxiety– Controlled, tight, scratch marks with pencils or pens that depict the nervousness of the emotion