Art Therapy, a visual form of expressive arts therapy, is one of the services offered through FHE Health’s Expressive Arts Therapy program. Creative arts like painting and drawing can support therapy and treatment goals in numerous ways, but not many people are familiar with how art therapy works and what it does. This page will provide an introduction.
What is art therapy, and why do we offer it? In the sections that follow, you’ll get answers to these and other questions from an expert on the subject. Art therapist Tzipora Cohen leads groups at FHE and is often asked to explain how they work and what they do. Below are her insights.
What Is Art Therapy?
Like other forms of expressive arts therapy, art therapy harnesses creative expression in combination with psychotherapeutic processing to support healing. This is art therapy in its most basic sense.
The Visual Form of Expressive Arts Therapy
Art therapy, though, is the visual form of expressive arts therapy, and as Cohen defined it, is multi-faceted:
- It is a “non-traditional, non-threatening form of therapy” that combines the artistic process with talk therapy.
- Art therapy is also “another means of communication to externalize emotions and experiences.” By that, Cohen meant that art therapy can be “more approachable” for some who have trouble verbalizing what they are going through, because art comes from “a non-confrontational, safe place that lends itself to self-exploration and self-expression.”
- Visual expressive art is a “universal language” that “creates group cohesion” within a recovery setting, by virtue of being accessible to “anyone of any background, culture, race, skill level, and or any other defining characteristic.”
Why We Offer Art Therapy
Why offer art therapy at FHE Health? Cohen said there are “many reasons” but chose to name “the primary ones.” She explained that various topics, both positive and negative, come up within a therapeutic group context. Art therapy is a vehicle for transformative reflection about these topics.
Say, for example, that the topic is a “positive” experience, such as a formative memory. Art therapy can help patients:
- change and/or enlarge their perspectives
- identify hard-to-reach emotions
- regulate their emotions
- and progress towards self-actualization, by building awareness of their capabilities, skills, and potential.
When the discussion is about a “negative” topic like a painful memory, art therapy can be a catalyst for self-growth by:
- fostering self-awareness
- labeling or identifying conflicting emotions
- fostering introspection
- and improving emotional dysregulation “through the processing of emotions associated with specific events and the use of art as an adaptive coping tool”
Types of Art Therapy
There are many types of art therapy, according to Cohen. She said Positive Art Therapy (which addresses a positive topic) and Negative Art Therapy (which addresses a negative topic) are “the most prominent” types of art therapy.
Solution-Focused Art Therapy prioritizes the finding of solutions to one’s individual problems in relation to their recovery. It “focuses on the patient’s objectives and aspirations for the future, by prioritizing what can be done in the here and now to achieve those goals and desires.”
Gestalt Art Therapy orients itself around “what one is feeling in the here and now.” The goal is to help the patient stay grounded in and connected to the present moment.
Person-Centered Art Therapy encourages emotional self-discovery and individual development, through the creative process and with facilitation from the art therapist structured around validation, acceptance, and congruence.
Psychodynamic Art Therapy encourages self-evaluation and seeks to foster insight through introspection, toward “a better understanding of oneself.”
Art Therapy for Trauma
Art therapy has many mental health uses and applications, including as an intervention for trauma. Patients at FHE frequently have a history of trauma, which is at the root of their symptoms. Art therapy “is a safe and healthy way to address, externalize, and process trauma,” according to Cohen.
Cohen said it’s not uncommon for those with trauma histories to be “holding onto grief, guilt, resentment, anger, and/or shame.” Expressive artistic reflection on a topic like “unfinished business or unresolved issues or emotions from a past or current relationship” can help to “reconcile these inner emotional conflicts.” At FHE, this often entails the creation of “a combination of a written and visual arts piece,” which is inspired by the person with whom the patient has the most unfinished business.
The exercise is often clarifying. Cohen said it helps to identify an unmet need, whether that’s receiving or giving love, validation, forgiveness, or acceptance, and “this opens the door to resolving unfinished business.” Cohen added that the process “allows for closure, encourages constructive emotional expression, reduces stress and anxiety, and can even have the effect of preventing regression.”
Art therapy can also be used as “an adaptive coping tool for trauma” that—in combination with mindfulness techniques—reduces anxiety and stress. (Anxiety and stress are core symptoms of PTSD and other mental health issues related to trauma.) Cohen used the example of “painting one’s safe place.” The exercise begins with mindfulness in the form of imagining yourself in your safe place and using all five senses to visualize the people and objects in that place.
If you can’t identify a safe place, Cohen said, you’re encouraged to “think outside of the box … maybe about a person or about something that grounds you, such as music, art, exercise, or writing.” Of course, identifying and imagining your safe space are just part of the creative process. The next part is depicting it.
Child Art Therapy and Its Use in Child Psychology
One area where the use of art therapy may be more familiar is child psychology. Art therapy can improve emotional regulation for children dealing with “past trauma, oppositional disorders, and/or cognitive or intellectual disabilities such as autism.”
The “main difference” between child art therapy and adult art therapy, according to Cohen? The emphasis, when working with a child, is on “their development such as improving communication and/or social skills” and the “healthy integration of relationships in their world.”
What Do We Offer at FHE: Types of Art Therapy?
At FHE, patients are exposed to many types of art therapy. What a group is like can depend on whether the exercise draws from Positive and Negative Art Therapy, Solution-Focused Art Therapy, Person-Centered Art Therapy, Gestalt Art Therapy, and/or Psychodynamic Art Therapy.
Patients have an opportunity to experiment with “different drawing materials such as colored pencils, markers, and oil pastels and painting materials such as watercolor and acrylic paint.” Other mediums like clay and “some materials that are unconventional in a traditional setting” are also available.
What Is an Art Therapy Session at FHE Like?
Art therapy sessions at FHE follow a general structure that can vary a bit with context but typically is as follows, Cohen said:
- First, introductions and group rules, including a reminder of group confidentiality
- Second, depending on the directive and population, an ice breaker followed by a brief discussion
- Third, the identification and explanation of the topic, followed by the distribution of creative materials and the start of the artistic process.
- Fourth, a break between the art process and the psychotherapeutic process to allow time to “emotionally regulate if certain emotions or memories surfaced from the art process”
- Next, a time for the art therapist to share about the objective and for the group to process
During this time of processing, patients speak about their artwork and, with the guidance of the therapist, engage in a time of further reflection via open-ended questions that draw from motivational interviewing techniques.
The session then ends with acknowledgement of and thanks for the group members’ contributions, followed by the final few minutes of cleaning up.
Art therapy fulfills a unique and impactful therapeutic function, alongside other treatments at FHE. For more information about how it can help you or a loved one, contact us.