What is art therapy?

What is art therapy?

You were born a creative person, which is why art therapy can benefit you physically, mentally and emotionally, even if you do not consider yourself an artist.

When we begin our journey from birth to about five years old, we experience everything through our senses: sight, sound, touch, taste and smell.

"Young children often learn how to express themselves through art before they can even use language," says Nancy Morales, MFA, ATR, a counseling intern at Cancer Wellness. "Many people stop using art materials as they transition into adulthood, which prevents them from nurturing their sense of creativity."

Art therapy uses visual arts to provide treatment in hospitals, psychiatric practices, wellness centers, schools, rehabilitation facilities, older adult communities and other settings. It introduces (or reintroduces) art materials to:

  • Explore feelings

  • Foster self-awareness

  • Improve social skills

  • Manage behavior and addiction

  • Reconcile emotions and conflicts

  • Reduce anxiety

"The goal of art therapy is to restore your functioning to your own personal sense of well-being," says Morales.

Art therapy is facilitated by an art therapist, a mental health professional with a master's degree in art therapy. Art therapists have training in visual art (drawing, painting, sculpture and other art forms) and the creative process, as well as the application of theories and techniques in human development, psychology and counseling.

"As an art therapist, I can help you master techniques used to make finished artwork," she says. "Additionally, if an image triggers a memory or emotion, I can help you process those emotions by finding personal meaning."

What to expect in art therapy

"You don't have to have any artistic ability to do art therapy," says Morales.

An art therapist may start the first session with collage making because it alleviates the stress of having to draw or paint an image from scratch. Morales offers magazines and materials like fabric, paint and clay, which can help clients express their feelings.

"Each therapist's approach is different," she explains. "Most therapists explore topics that are important to you."

If you are dealing with strong emotions related to your cancer diagnosis or treatment, an example directive may be, "Explore a time in your past when you felt at peace."

"We may take you through a quick meditation, allowing you time to recall a memory of the peaceful feeling and then have you begin working with the art materials," she says.

Art therapy emphasizes the process of making art.

"We are not necessarily looking to create a finished product, just an image that helps evoke that feeling of peace and tap into that peaceful place," she explains.

Health benefits of art therapy

Art therapy can have mental, physical and emotional health benefits. It can: 

  • Aid the transition from healthcare to home. "Many people feel a void after they complete cancer treatment and no longer see their doctor every week," says Morales. "Working with an art therapist can help someone through that time of adjustment. Filling that space with art can be very beneficial."

  • Allow you to re-create your life. Perhaps something major has changed in your life. You must figure out how to take those changes and make them beneficial for you. "Art therapy can help you walk through the constructs of how you created your life and consider what's working and what's not. It helps build resilience," she says.

  • Build hope and strength. By working with images of the past when you were strong or visualizing positive images of your future, you can build hope and strength during your cancer journey. "Like guided imagery or visualization, viewing these images offers emotional benefits," she explains. 

  • Decrease stress and anxiety. Many studies show that art therapy reduces stress and anxiety because it requires the physical motion of going through an activity, being mindful and present in the moment and tapping into the body's natural rhythms.  

  • Give you a creative identity. "One client was unable to return to her full-time occupation because she was facing a long-term cancer battle," says Morales. "She found a new identity by creating art and now sells her work on Etsy. She tapped into creativity she didn't know she had in her previous life."

  • Improve problem-solving skills. "Artists must figure out how to use materials in a way that creates their desired result," says Morales. "You have to look at your materials from different perspectives and figure out the best way to do something."

Learn more about how creativity can empower you during your cancer journey.


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