As I continue my work in the community, and my studies which are currently related to trauma and its link to addictive or difficult behaviours I learn more about the benefits and positive transformations that manifest during art therapy sessions. I have always understood that talking about the traumatic event was not enough to help us recover, and that sometimes talking can actually re-traumatise us. Over the last decade or so there has been much research into what happens in the brain when we are subjected to trauma particularly when we are young and the following video by Cathy Malchiodi, expressive art and trauma specialist outlines what it is, and gives a great description of the benefits of expressive arts therapy to help people move on in life after experiencing trauma.
I have been holding online art therapy sessions and group workshops since March, and am inspired by the creative work of the participants. Although we have been living in a very different reality to what we were used to, with some of the people that I Zoom relate with living in small bedsits – where ever we are, our imagination can free us, and there is nothing more wonderful than witnessing people escaping with art!
Here is an article by art therapist Cathy Malchiodi on the subject.
5 Art Therapy Exercises to Add to Your Self-Care Routine
Art is healing.
By Anna Borges
Creativity can be a wonderful way to support your mental health, and with everything going on in the world, it might be an especially healing and underrated mode of self-care right now. If the news cycle has you feeling stressed, hopeless, overwhelmed, angry, depressed, or any number of emotions, allowing yourself to get messy through art could be the outlet you’re looking for.
“Creativity is a wellspring, and you can always tap into it,” Leah Guzman, board-certified art therapist and author of Essential Art Therapy Exercises, tells SELF. “With guided support, such as art therapy, you can learn to cope with traumatizing events that are happening now or have happened in the past.”
To help you take your creative expression to a therapeutic level, we talked to two art therapists for a few exercises that can be done on your own to boost mental health. Before we get to those, though, let’s talk a bit more about art therapy.
What is art therapy?
There are a lot of misconceptions about art therapy, Deborah Farber, chair of the MPS Art Therapy Department of New Yorl City’s School of Visual Arts and a member of the Art Therapy Practice advisory board, tells SELF. People assume it’s only for kids, that it’s the same as taking an art class, or that it’s not “real” therapy. In reality, art therapy is often very similar to talk therapy—a space to explore psychological and emotional challenges with a therapist—but with the addition of creative techniques such as drawing, painting, collage, coloring, or sculpting.
“It provides you with another form of language and helps you express the things you don’t have words for,” says Farber. “Art tells you things about yourself—unexpected things burst forth, not just in the art but in the process of creating it.”
Many people assume art therapy isn’t “for them” for a variety of reasons, with a lack of artistic skill being among chief worries. But art therapists will be quick to tell you that you needn’t worry about that. Many art therapy exercises can be done with basic supplies (or even a computer) and don’t require any skill. “The focus of art therapy is on the process of creating art, not the art product,” says Guzman. “You don’t need to be an artist, just open to having new experiences.”
While seeking out an art therapist who can guide you in the long-term is the best way to reap the benefits of art therapy, there are ways to tap into art therapy in your own life, much the way you can apply tools from talk therapy after you leave your therapist’s office. Even if you’re not interested in full-blown art therapy, art-therapy-inspired exercises still have the potential to help you relax, express your emotions, and learn new things about yourself. The following exercises are wonderful places to start.
1. Create a safe space.
Farber suggests building or drawing a physical manifestation of a safe space or a sanctuary, whatever that means to you. “Consider things like your emotional needs, physical boundaries, and things that inspire safety and comfort,” she says, noting that with her clients, she typically uses fabric, cardboard, wire, wood, and other 3D materials to make the space as physical as possible. If you don’t have the supplies you need to be that crafty, consider drawing or creating a Pinterest mood board of photos and art you find.
Art therapy exercises extend beyond creation, so make sure to engage in self-reflection during and after. “What’s going on in your body as you make it?” asks Farber. “Why do you associate safety with the colors, materials, and symbols you choose? What does your safe space defend against?”
2. Color a feeling wheel.
Even when we’re dealing with a lot of emotions, it’s not always easy to recognize them specifically. Identifying and naming a feeling is often the first step in dealing with it, so Guzman recommends a feeling wheel as an effective beginner exercise for anyone who wants to check in with themselves and become more aware of their emotions.WATCHPregnant Women Weeks 7 to 40: What Time Do You Go to Bed?MORE SELF VIDEOSMost Popular
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To do the exercise (which can also be found in Guzman’s book), start by drawing a circle and dividing it into eighths, like a pie. Then write one emotion (like sadness, rage, frustration, shock, joy, or anxiety) in each section. Lastly, using whatever materials you have available, pick a color that resonates with that feeling and fill it in.
Pay attention to: “Which feelings did you write down first? Which feelings are you currently experiencing? Did you color any two emotions the same color? If you did, what does this mean to you? Are there more positive emotions or negative ones on your feeling wheel?” writes Guzman in Essential Art Therapy Exercises.
3. Make response art.
Chances are you have a song lyric, poem, prose passage, or quote that you connect with in some way. Farber suggests choosing one and using it as a basis to create art. Respond to it however feels right, whether through scribbling with a pencil, coloring with crayons or colored pencils, or whipping out some watercolors or clay. The point is to make physical your emotional response to the words.
As you work, ask yourself, “Why did you pick the particular prompt? What do the words bring up for you? How do you feel as you create the art? What are you trying to capture?” says Farber.
4. Get into some craft-ivism.
There is a long history of people using crafted handmade objects—such as quilting and embroidery—as a way to advocate for positive change, to protest, and to express their values. Since community, advocacy, and connecting with meaning are so often good for mental health and self-care, Farber suggests an exercise based in craftivism for healing, especially during these times. “By slowly working through a craft, it allows us to slow down and think about what matters to us,” she says.
Farber suggests starting simple, perhaps making a small pillow by sewing two pieces of felt together with some filling and hand-stitching a message of your choice onto it. “As you choose your words carefully, think about what you stand for,” says Farber. “What matters to you, and how can you express it right now? Make it a declaration.”
Beyond sewing and embroidery, there are many ways to mix art therapy and activism (making a really beautiful protest sign, for example). To take a deeper dive into this gentle form of activism, check out Craftivism: The Art and Craft of Activism, edited by Betsy Greer, or read these ideas for craftivism action to support the Black Lives Matter movement by the Craftivist Collective.
5. Use a nature walk as inspiration.
Incorporating nature into your art therapy practice is pretty much a two-for-one deal. Farber suggests going for a walk (safely with a mask and keeping distanced from others!) and collecting things you find that are interesting to you. That could be leaves, sticks, pine cones, rocks, or other found objects. When you return home, use your bounty to create a sculpture or an altar while concentrating on your senses. What does each material feel like? What drew you to it?
If you’d like to stick to more digital art therapy, Guzman recommends taking a nature photo walk, which you can do in her book or even by poking around on the internet. Instead of collecting materials to make something, create art as you go by taking or saving pictures of anything that is beautiful to you or evokes an emotion. As you do, pay attention to what comes up and consider what you’d name each photo. Then do whatever comes naturally with the photos, whether that’s pulling them up when you need a moment of calm or printing them out to create a lush collage that helps bring the outdoors into your home.
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Anna Borges is a writer and editor who joined SELF in May 2019. Previously, she has held positions at BuzzFeed and Women’s Health, and could be found writing around the internet about mental, emotional, and sexual health. She’s also the author of the book *The More or Less Definitive Guide… Read more
When I was studying art therapy I came across a book by writer and dramatherapist Dr Sue Jennings and art therapist Ase Minde called Art Therapy and Drama Therapy: Masks of the Soul. I was inspired and impressed by the book which gave me many ideas for use in my own practice with teens, and also furthered my interest in embodied movement for trauma release which I bring in to my eco-therapy work outside in nature. Over the last couple of years I have been lucky enough to have training with Dr Sue as part of a creative supervision training that I undertook with CTC and also more recently an online workshop/training where Dr Sue described the importance of different kinds of play to support healthy child development and strategies to introduce creative activities to young people who have been deprived of early healthy family support, love and attachment.
During the workshop which was a mixture of lecture, discussion and creative activities, although online, we mature therapist participants played and learnt together with Dr Sue’s skilled delivery. I feel incredibly lucky as Dr Sue Jennings who is in her 70’s is planning to retire and move to India (only stopped by Covid 19). I am hoping that she will now continue to work online where ever she is!
Below is a link to an article about her from a BACP journal.
I have been working online for the last couple of months which is proving to be an effective way of working. I did some early training in online therapy which gave me confidence and awareness of the extra considerations that have to be taken into account with regards to privacy and confidentiality. In spite of only being able to see the portion of each other that the camera is focused on art is made, reflections and discussion becomes easy as like any other therapeutic relationship, trust is built and positive changes occur.
I like the words of Sean Gerity who says
“The technology you use impresses no one, the experience you create with it is everything“
I am both amazed and inspired by the relative ease that we (the clients I work with and myself) have transitioned into being able to create such positive experiences through online platforms, and although I really miss the face to face contact, working in this way provides an easy way to make to have a therapeutic relationship without having to travel. I look forward to working in the physical way and also spending more time outdoors connecting with nature in creativity and wellness, but will still offer online support for those that wish.
November is the beginning of the Celtic year which ends on 31st October which is the old festival of Samhain when we remember those that we love who have died.
This festival has been hijacked by commercialism and has become an occasion when children get dressed up as witches and ghouls and knock on doors expecting to be given sweets – called trick or treat.
Although my background is in art and facilitation of educational art projects, and I am aware of the benefits of art for art’s sake. It is only since I trained as an art therapist that I became fully aware of the deeper psychological improvements that are made to our mental and physical health through Art Therapy sessions with a professionally trained art therapist. I am sharing these articles by Cathy Malchiodi an American art therapist and author which highlight and explain the difference and the importance of the role of art therapist.
Bluebell from The Lost Words by You Are Wolf
I had to share this wonderful song with illustrations by Jacki Morris. The album was made to compliment a wonderful book by nature writer Robert Mac Farlane, who discovered when looking at a recent Oxford Junior dictionary that words were missing. These words that included acorn, adder, bluebell and bramble, conker, dandelion, heather and wren were taken out to make way for words that are mainly transitory computer based words such as chatroom. MacFarlane decided to write a book of Lost Words with beautiful imagery by Morris to re-enchant children and anyone who happens to come across the book – to the wonders and beauty of the creatures and plants that somehow have been omitted from the dictionary.Leave a comment