Art Therapy: When Words Are Not Enough

It is not uncommon for those struggling with an eating disorder, anxiety, depression, post- traumatic stress disorder or serious trauma to have significant difficulty connecting with their feelings. In fact, many patients with eating disorders report that restricting, binging or purging helps them disconnect from their feelings, feelings that may otherwise be to terrifying or uncomfortable for them to tolerate. Talking about these feelings can be just as frightening for some and access to one’s emotional life becomes off limits. In psychotherapy, it is the goal of the therapist to establish a safe, non-judgmental, consistent and trusting relationship with patients in order for them to be able to begin to connect with feelings that have been distorted by symptoms and chaotic emotional affect.  For some, it takes significant time to build this trust and the use of art therapy provides an alternative process to help patients safely access feelings and experiences that may otherwise be to painful to talk about.
The American Art Therapy Association defines art therapy as “a mental health profession that uses the creative process of art making to improve and enhance the physical, mental and emotional well-being of individuals of all ages. It is based on the belief that the creative process involved in artistic self-expression helps people to resolve conflicts and problems, develop interpersonal skills, manage behavior, reduce stress, increase self-esteem and self-awareness, and achieve insight.”
Art therapy is useful when working with children, adolescents and adults as well as in groups.  Children may not have the vocabulary or the emotional maturity to express what they may be experiencing. However, children are comfortable and familiar with coloring and allowing their stories to be told through their art work. Adolescent girls who are the victims of sexual and physical abuse often feel intense shame and guilt. Using art therapy allows them to “say” what they may not otherwise feel comfortable speaking out loud. Drawing, painting, beading, poetry and collage are just some tools that allow patients to reduce stress, reveal unconscious thoughts and feelings and provide an outlet for healing to take place. Similarly, some adults find it difficult to explore both past and present experiences. Symptoms of anxiety and depression are tapped into when people are handed a simple white pad and colored markers.  Again, through the creative expression of feelings and experiences adults can develop greater personal and psychological insight. This insight provides greater access to more sophisticated analysis of symptoms, interpersonal relationships and opportunities for positive change and Increased self -esteem and self worth. In my own practice I have had several patients say that not only do they gain greater insight into their unconscious mind through their unique creative expression of their feelings, but they derive fulfillment from the process of creating their art and the sense of empowerment that accompanies it.

In group therapy, art work is a powerful tool for building interpersonal relationships and skills. The benefits are to both the individual and the group as a whole. Group members use their artistic expressions to not only connect with their own experiences and emotions but are able to join together to relate to each other’s artwork. Analysis of one another’s art opens up the opportunity for group members to experience empathy. Members show support to one another and use these positive relationships to heal wounds from the past. These group relationships allow patients to begin to learn to trust themselves and others in a safe environment and provide a model for healthy interpersonal relationships to use outside of the group setting.

From early civilization through today, art has been a way for people to tell their stories, send a message or say what may be otherwise taboo.  Under the guidance of a professional patients can develop greater self awareness, self esteem and personal satisfaction as part of their recovery from an eating disorder or mental illness.