• Elizabeth Harring

What is art therapy?

By: Ann Lowery Adams LGPAT

Art therapy defined.

More and more people are hearing about or becoming familiar with the benefits of art therapy but many are unsure of what it is, exactly.

The American Art Therapy Association (AATA) defines art therapy as,

“…an integrative mental health and human services profession that enriches the lives of individuals, families, and communities through active art-making, creative process, applied psychological theory, and human experience within a psychotherapeutic relationship.”

While accurate, this definition leaves some wanting for a deeper understanding of what art therapy entails and why it might be a helpful form of therapy for them.

Art therapy explained.

Traditional talk therapy can be difficult for some because words can be limiting. Everyone has experienced a time when you simply do not know what to say, especially when discussing vulnerabilities or personal feelings. Art therapy is, simply, therapy that provides additional ways of communicating, and exploring one’s emotional experience. Art therapy allows people to connect more deeply to their experience by being able to physically interact with art media (paint, markers, collage, clay, yarn, found objects, etc.) and therefore physically connect to their emotional state.

The benefits of art therapy.

Art therapy works because the creation of art becomes part of the therapeutic work in which clients engage. This art that is made does not have to be perfect – in fact there is so much more to be gained from imperfection to help one gain insight, heal, and grow.

Studies have shown that creating art can bypass the language centers in our brains, allowing us to connect to our emotions in a very different way than simply talking about them. When talking about our emotions it is easier to detach from genuinely feeling those emotions, and it becomes easier for us to rationalize and minimize rather than experience these emotions. Sometimes this feels safer for us as, but it does little to help us form insights, grow and heal.

Creating art physically engages us when it comes to identifying and processing thoughts, feelings, and experiences. By physically connecting in this way, we are better able to integrate these experiences and heal, rather than keeping them at arm’s length and never acknowledging our journey. Creating helps us to honor ourselves.

How art therapy works.

I believe that everyone is an artist until they are told that they are not one – more than likely by an art teacher in third grade (just a guess). An art therapist is here to support you and remind you that you, and the things you create are indeed art, and are indeed, enough.

For myself an art therapist is, first and foremost, someone that provides a safe, non-judgmental, physical and emotional space for their clients to do difficult therapeutic work. That therapeutic work could include art making, talking, silence, crying, laughing – whatever is needed in that moment. Your art therapist is there to meet you where you are, just as any other therapist would.

Where an art therapist differs from your typical therapist is our training. Art therapists are masters-level clinicians, well versed in various art materials in order to guide our clients. I say “guide” and not “teach” because what an art therapist is NOT, is an art teacher. Your artwork with an art therapist is not graded, critiqued, appraised, and above all your artwork is not judged. Art therapists are trained to recognize symbols and patterns in our client’s work and look to the art for additional insight into our clients.

Who benefits from art therapy.

Art therapy is particularly successful in helping individuals with a trauma history and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). Art therapy is also proven to aid in the treatment of depression, anxiety, other mood disorders, grief and bereavement, adjustment issues, attachment issues, and so much more.

Art therapy is helpful when working with children, adolescents, adults, and seniors. Why is it so successful with so many populations? Because art therapy is not limited to the type of art you see in a museum. You do not need to be an artist because you have your therapist as your guide to define what art is for you.

Art is essential to the growth of the human soul. It comes in many forms, as does healing and growth. While we are acknowledging and honoring our journey it is important to find what helps us the most. If painting is not what helps you connect, then we continue to explore to find out what does. You could respond best to creating something beautiful and unique to you out of knitted pieces, by arranging delicate collages, by creating a found-object sculpture of twigs and bottle caps, or something that has yet to have been thought of.

The most important reason I believe you should engage in art therapy (yes, you) is because you owe it to yourself to begin your healing, learning, growing, empowering experience. If words feel hard to find, we have an outlet to get us closer to discussing challenges and getting through them.


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