Does art therapy work?
With a current focus on cognitive and behavioural approaches in therapy, is there enough evidence to support using expressive approaches to guide the growth and change process?
Not only is there evidence that art therapy works, but there is evidence that it may work better than talk therapy approaches in certain circumstances.
The earliest evidence of recognizable human art is forty thousand years old. Human beings have been creative beings for a really long time – long enough and consistently enough that creativity appears to be a totally natural impulse.
Yet, creative therapies are often regarded as “woo-woo”, an alternative therapy to more traditional counselling approaches like CBT. Indeed, before I became an art therapist, I didn’t fully know what art therapy was, just that I knew that creating art felt like a second language that jointly calmed and excited me.
“When I refer to creative living, I am speaking more broadly, talking about living a life that is driven more strongly by curiosity than by fear”.
Counselling, as a practice, is guided by curiosity. Together, clients and counsellors explore thoughts, feelings, behaviours, the past, the present, hope for the future, what works and what doesn’t work, with openness and curiosity. But spoken language can be limiting. Sometimes there just aren’t words for what is necessary to say.
This is where art therapy comes in. The Canadian Art Therapy Association describes that through “using imagery, colour and shape as part of [the] creative therapeutic process, thoughts and feelings can be expressed that would otherwise be difficult to articulate”. Art is a common language, even for people who don’t identify as artists. Art is the first language we learn as human beings. Children across all cultures spontaneously create art, using a symbolic language to understand their world.
Working with art as an adjunct and alternative to spoken language is supported by hemispheric neuroscience studies. Language is processed in the left hemisphere of the brain. Yet, when a trauma is experienced, or anxiety takes over, left hemisphere higher-order processes like language processing can become unresponsive. This can make it virtually impossible to articulate in spoken language the thoughts, feelings and memories associated with specific events. But, creativity exists in the right side of the brain, as an elemental and natural process of expression. Art bridges the gap between the hemispheres to allow for a new form of communication that does not need to involve language.
Even just the act of creating art is therapeutic in itself. The sensory aspect of creating art facilitates positive coping skills and the integration of strong emotions due to the link between fear responses and sensory-motor processing in the amygdala. Gliding pastels across a page, squishing clay, painting with hands or a brush and glueing magazine photos onto a collage all help to calm the mind and body.
So, why does art therapy work? Because it reconnects you to the artistic language. Art therapy offers a safe method of accessing painful feelings through the use of symbol, image and metaphor. The creative process can open up a deep personal dialogue with images and feeling that can instinctively present the needs of the soul. And through art, the soul can heal.
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Gladding, S. T. (2008). The impact of creativity in counselling. Journal of Creativity in Mental Health, 3(2), 97-104.
Rouse, A., Armstrong, J. & McLeod, J. (2015). Enabling connections: Counsellor creativity and therapeutic practice. Counselling and Psychotherapy Research, 15(3), 171-179
van der Kolk, B. (2015). The Body Keeps the Score: Brain Mind and Body in the Healing of Trauma. Penguin Books.