In their 1946 preamble, the World Health Organization defines health as “a state of complete physical, mental, and social well-being rather than merely the absence of disease or infirmity.” Health is just as much about the steps you take towards well-being as whether you are sick or not and the kind of medicine that fuels our health comes in many different forms. It’s now pretty commonly acknowledged that medicines of the mind--like seeing a therapist regularly or learning to cope with past traumas--are as important as the medicines we can get at the pharmacy, and emotional afflictions can affect our bodies just as much as our brains.
Among the many different types of therapy practiced today, art is one of the most valuable. Author Rachel Naomi Remen says that “At the deepest level, the creative process and the healing process arise from a single source.” Considering people have been creating and preserving art for tens of thousands of years, the ability to express creatively is sometimes considered a fundamental part of the human experience. Turning to old traditions and giving your pain physical shape in the form of art, you could be giving yourself the gift of healing.
How it Works
Whether you are dealing with the stress of a job, are going through the stages of no contact
post-breakup, or you have more deep-seated emotional struggles, using art to find some relief could be extremely effective. When we create art, we are less guarded and more emotionally vulnerable than when engaging in talk therapy or conversation. This kind of non-verbal expression can help us explore and communicate hard subjects in a safe way. By either working with a guide or simply creating on your own, you can use art to gain better insight about yourself and peace about your situations.
When Words Fail
Visual art is an influential way to tell a story without words. While there are other creative expressions that fall under art as therapy, like theater, music, movement and dance, and expressive writing, visual art offers a unique opportunity. Crafting images to view a subconscious narrative can reveal so much, sometimes even hidden emotions or perspectives that we had all along. Being able to approach difficult or even dangerous topics safely can also help offer up some self-awareness and reduce fear or insecurity. This can be especially healing for trauma patients who are already processing heavier subjects with a therapist, but it’s also just as helpful for everyday stressors and inspirations.
Test your Tools
For those new to making art as well as seasoned artists: get creative! Try a variety of mediums and see if there’s one that makes you feel more expressive. When people think of visual art they probably immediately think of drawing and painting, but there are so many ways to create. Collage, sculpting, paper arts, fiber crafts… the list goes on and on, and you can mix them however you like.
Trust the Process
Don’t worry about whether or not you’re an “artist”--art as therapy is all about the process. Everyone has the power to express themselves and be creative, and that means you too. Part of what makes art so potent as a healing tool is your subconscious creativity, so if you’re wrapped up in your artistic skills think of it more as exercise.
While You’re at it… Look!
Making your own creations isn’t the only way art can heal; looking at art can have mental and physical health benefits too. Visiting an art museum can increase your serotonin and cortisol levels and while looking at visual art pieces stimulates the brain. Viewing art can improve analysis skills and critical thinking as well.
Art and the Brain
In the world of neuroscience, art therapy has improved symptoms in patients with dementia and traumatic brain injuries, helping to stimulate memory and reestablish neural pathways. This can be particularly healing for soldiers with PTSD and TBI
who may have a harder time with traditional talk therapy. The non-verbal aspect is key for those with conditions that have affected their cognitive capabilities or limited their ability to verbalize.
For people without neurological conditions, doing art therapy can also assist in rewriting the neural pathways in the brain. Engaging in creative activity can help with neuroplasticity, or the brain’s ability to change and adapt through growth. Long-term, art as therapy could transform habits and negative thought patterns, for example, changing the way people view traumatic events or improving their self-esteem.