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The Therapeutic Value of Art Forms
chillibreeze writer — Shantha Nair-Kalia
“Thought is impossible without an image. The soul never thinks without an image.” Aristotle
As a little girl, I fractured my elbow and walked around with a “cast” for several weeks. I was an irritable unhappy child. Then, one day, to distract me from dwelling on my pain, my mother gave me a box of crayons and some paper.
I decided to tell her how miserable I was in the cast. An hour later, a teary-eyed face was staring back at me….the old cliché “A picture is worth a thousand words” was absolutely right!
A few days later, when I was less irritable, I painted little flowers and butterflies all over the cast. Each time I looked at the cast, I smiled and actually enjoyed the bright colors on a once pristine white background.
A few days later, I surprised my parents with my artwork – a smiling face!! Unbeknownst to me, my mother had initiated me into the world of “art therapy.” My artwork emerged as a true reflection of my feelings; the creativity within me had found an outlet for expression in my artwork.
From time immemorial, art has been therapeutically used and recognized as a healing power. Evidence from the Stone Age suggests that humans have used symbols throughout history to express themselves.
Symbols such as cave drawings, masks, and hieroglyphics suggest that art served function rather than aesthetics. It is evident that art was a visual record of self-expression and communication.
Spiritual power and human artistic expression were intertwined, and art was used symbolically to cure illness and bring about physical and psychological relief. Navajos used a combination of song, dance, and sand paintings as powerful healing tools. Buddhists used mandalas as a focus for prayer and relief from suffering.
Art has endured through the ages as a healing force. The emergence of the arts in the treatment of disorders can largely be attributed to the development of modern psychotherapy and the recognition of art as a means of communication.
It appears that there came a realization that art making is an important means of expressing mind, body, and soul, which in turn is connected to health and well being. Art is a powerful tool that bridges communication and emotional expression while transcending language and culture.
Margaret Naumberg was the earliest recognized pioneer of art therapy in the United States, known for her work with spontaneous artistic expressions of her patients. She was a follower of both Freud and Jung and incorporated art into psychotherapy as a means for her patients to visualize and recognize the unconscious.
Therapeutic art was discovered and practiced in several other countries with the realization that individuals were contributing to their own treatment through art. This reinforced the ancient Eastern medical approach of viewing the mind and body as unified, with energy fields both inside and around the body seen as being a part of the total health.
In contrast to traditional Western medicine, which heals just the body or just the mind, Eastern medicine approached healing as an internal process. Various forms of Eastern medicine found their way into Western culture and non-traditional approaches became more visible in addressing what may be viewed as both physical and mental disease.
In the early 20th century, psychiatrists became interested in the artwork created by their mentally ill patients. Artwork by children reflected developmental, emotional, and cognitive growth. The profession of art therapy grew into a communication medium and was used in hospitals, clinics, and rehabilitation centers.
Art therapists suggest that our perception of personality is emotionally colored, given the frequent use of color terms in clichés that are used commonly. You see the world through ‘rose-colored’ glasses; you are ‘green’ with envy, ‘red’ with rage, and ‘purple’ with passion.
In recent years, several types of mental health care practices which were previously considered outside the scope of conventional Western medicine have been incorporated in treatment. Complementary and Alternative Medicine (CAM) is one such practice.
Complementary or integrative medicine works alongside traditional medicine while alternative medicine works in the place of traditional medicine.
Indian Ayurvedic medicine is a form of alternative medicine that seeks to re-establish a balance or harmony through energy and balance within the body and in the lifestyle of the patient. Traditional Chinese Medicine, Native American healing, Homeopathic Medicine, and Naturopathic Medicine are some of the other popular forms of alternative medicine. Creative Arts Therapies as a form of Alternative Medicine gained popularity as art forms such as dance, music, art, and drama helped reduce symptoms by providing outlets for emotional expression. Art speaks for one’s need to reveal, heal, and transform.
The American Art Therapy Association (AATA) defines art therapy as “an established 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.”
According to the AATA, art therapy is based on knowledge of human development and psychological theories, and is an efficient treatment for people with developmental, medical, educational, social, or psychological problems. Through the process of art creation, one can increase self-awareness, cope with symptoms, stress and traumatic experiences and enhance cognitive abilities.
Since art is a non-verbal expression of emotions, it cannot be manipulated or censored and therefore provides an honest look at an individual’s problems. Treating children or cognitively impaired individuals who may not have the verbal skills to articulate their emotions through art has been found to be beneficial.
Art brings about visual communication and the meaning of the art in a trusting environment forges a binding relationship between the patient and the therapist.
Art therapy as a form of untraditional medicine has gained popularity and is used in the treatment of psychiatric patients, children, adolescents, adults, etc. It is extensively used in the treatment of various diseases in both children and adults.
It helps to bring out the person’s subconscious thoughts and helps the therapist to properly diagnose the condition and treat the patient. Engaging patients in some form of art is a means to lessen the burden of illness and pain by distraction, while providing care.
Art therapy has been used successfully to treat obesity. It has also found its way in treating hemodialysis and HIV patients. Art therapy sessions are also being offered to prisoners. Some smoking cessation programs offer a few weeks of art therapy that has received positive reactions. Migraine sufferers have resorted to art for relief. Cancer patients are known to be treated with art therapy to reduce their pain and side effects from chemotherapy and radiotherapy.
Pain is probably one of the most significant reasons for making art because pain cannot be measured. Chronic pain sufferers turn to art for distraction, and draw, sculpt or paint images to depict their pain. Art exhibitions are organized by chronic pain sufferers to raise awareness about the chronic problems of pain.
Painting is the most popular form of art therapy. Foot and mouth paintings by artists are a form of self-expression of the disabled men and women, who are unable to draw and paint with their hands.
Art therapy and Terrorism/Extremist Rehabilitation
Can art therapy cure terrorism? In recent times, perhaps the most fascinating use of art therapy is underway in Saudi Arabia where extremism is getting a new look with a softer approach, reports Nancy Durham (CBC News, Canada). Sounds very unlikely, but the government has been trying to rehabilitate terrorists (ex-jihadis) for the past few years through psychological and religious counseling and art therapy.
The participants are engaged in art therapy to get their anger out on paper rather than acting it out as, for example, suicide bombers. The Saudi government is tackling the problem very seriously in the hopes that the experiment will yield favorable results.
How does Art Therapy work?
Art therapy experts suggest that treatment models are practiced based on psychological theory and practice. During its formative years in the mid 1900s, psychoanalytic theories that included Freudian and Jungian schools of thought were the dominant theories in art therapy practice.
Art making shifts people away from their illness and allows them to overcome their fears. Being engaged in art allows people to have some control of their lives by letting them play freely with colors, textures, forms and helping them to create whatever they want.
Creativity not only enhances the brain function but distracts depressed people by increasing their abilities and offering the possibility of a better quality of life. Art making such as sculpting, painting, or drawing boosts the immune system.
Healing by art therapy occurs by changing the physiology and attitude of a person. The physiology changes from stress to deep relaxation, and fear is transformed to creativity. Art and music create a different brain wave pattern and affects the autonomic nervous system, hormonal system, and neurotransmitters, where every cell in the body is affected.
The consequent physiological healing process changes the immune system and blood flow to all the organs. Neurophysiologists state that art, prayer, and healing are all associated with similar wave patterns and mind body changes.
In recent years, art therapy has been widely used. In the United States, it gained popularity since the tragedies of September 11, 2001, and the 2005 hurricanes, Katrina and Rita. Survivors and families of the Oklahoma bombing and Columbine tragedy have also been treated with art therapy.
For the children affected by Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, art therapy aroused self-awareness and realization and art emerged as a way of expressing feelings and emotions. Since art therapy is a multi-sensory experience, children can bond their emotional and logical views and express feelings that they are unable to verbalize.
In June 2003, Senator Hillary Clinton proclaimed the National Creative Arts Therapy Week in recognition of using arts therapeutically to assist victims of illness, trauma, disability and other personal challenges. She stated that creative art therapies are disciplines that foster creative expression and promote health, communication, self-awareness, emotional, social, and cognitive functioning.
Medical schools today offer courses in arts, and hospitals and medical establishments are adding healing gardens to their environment. Art therapy is gaining popularity as more and more people are trained and certified as art therapists the world over.
Truly, it is impossible to present the vast information on art therapy in any one article! Other popular expressive art therapies, music and dance are also worth exploring.
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