Art: Just the word is enough to make my stomach hurt. I’m pretty sure I was born without the art gene. I am never chosen first to be on a Pictionary team. Turns out, however, that art can be a very effective, therapeutic way to deal with stress, work through trauma and express yourself when you can’t seem to find the right words. Art therapy works even for the stick-figure drawers like me.
As an elementary school teacher for 19 years, I drew more pictures than I ever wanted to. I was very up front about my lack of artistic ability, and my students and I had big laughs over my drawings. I could relate to my students who also didn’t believe in their inner Picassos. However, I am thankful that my lack of ability has never stopped me from giving it my best. Maybe I got some benefit from it that I wasn’t aware of at the time.
Art has been used as a means of communication since the beginning of time. The term “art therapy” is credited to British artist Adrian Hill who, in 1942, used art to assist his recovery from tuberculosis. From there, the mention and use of art therapy has grown by leaps and bounds.
According to Psychology Today, “Art therapy helps children, adolescents, and adults explore their emotions, improve self-esteem, manage addictions, relieve stress, improve symptoms of anxiety and depression, and cope with a physical illness or disability.”
But art tends to give me more anxiety, not less — so I consulted a professional who has witnessed the benefits firsthand and can speak to its uses. I figured maybe — maybe — she could even convince me to have a more positive view of my stick figures.
What exactly is art therapy, anyway?
Linda Gunther, a licensed professional counselor in Aurora, Colorado, has employed art therapy with her clients for years. We began our discussion by defining exactly what art therapy is.
“Art therapy is the use of art to access the creative part of the brain,” she explained. “When we were children, we colored before we had words. Coloring and art are pre-verbal. They use more of the right part of the brain or the emotional/subconscious parts of the brain. Accessing the parts of the brain that aren’t cognitive — that deal with logic and reason — tends to help an individual who might not have words for an experience … For example, asking a person to color their feelings or to color their heart or to draw what their anger looks like … gets the individual to access their feelings and thoughts that they couldn’t express in another way.”
Art therapy isn’t limited to drawing, coloring and painting, either. For example, Gunther has worked with children to make “feeling chains” out of colored construction paper to create a physical representation of their emotions.
How art therapy helps
Even if you think you have exactly zero artistic ability, putting pen (pencil, colored pencil, paintbrush) to paper offers solid benefits. “Using art can bring out a person’s inner feelings and emotions,” Gunther continued. “This can reduce stress for some individuals. Art takes the focus to another part of the brain, so the cognitive part relaxes. [It] helps unlock an individual and allows them to get in touch with their emotions without logic or reason.”
In a nutshell, creating art is good for our emotional health. “Research has shown that coloring/doodling/art does reduce anxiety as well as depression,” said Gunther. “Addiction therapists have had success with art therapy. Individuals struggling with trauma have also benefited.”
Art for non-artists
Art can help unlock even the brains of people who feel they have no creative talent whatsoever — and for whom the very notion of drawing equals stress. “Most people … benefit from it,” insists Gunther. “Some people are very analytical, so this type of experience can be very challenging. When given permission to just trust the process, they relax and do well most of the time.”
Adults have to try a little harder than kids to let go. “Adults tend to overthink the process, whereas children are freer and enjoy coloring and drawing. We have been socialized to use logic and reason … so some adults tend to be restricted in the exercises.”
Art therapy 101
So, let’s assume we’ve convinced you to try your unpracticed hand at creating something. How to begin? Gunther has some advice. “I have asked adults and children to journal using color — to color when there are no words. The more creative clients tend to be the ones who will try this. I have had trauma clients make collages that have been very beneficial. Information has been retrieved that couldn’t be accessed in other ways.”
Journaling in general is associated with stress reduction. And when you use graphical representations of your feelings instead of (or in addition to) words, you just might coax out some other part of your psyche that has no other path for expression. According to Gunther, “Anytime a person journals in some form, it is beneficial. Again, it is accessing their subconscious, which accesses information that the cognitive brain sometimes cannot. The information is brought forward to the cognitive part of the brain, which then brings awareness to the individual.”
Last year, a dear friend bought me an adult coloring book. I colored one picture and then gave it to my 6-year-old niece. After talking to Ms. Gunther, though, I regret that. “I have heard from many people in general that the adult coloring books reduce stress and bring about an attitude of accomplishment,” says Gunther. Maybe I should have given it more of a chance.
If you’re a perfectionist like me, then coloring and drawing might not be a comforting suggestion — but if you’re a perfectionist like me, then it might be exactly what we need. I’m going to give it a try. What’s the worst that can happen? Better yet, what’s the best that can happen?