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Art Therapy and Emotional Healing



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Q. Lewis,  I am a very creative person. I have been to many different therapists to deal with what I call “my existential depression”. I want to continue working with a therapist or life coach but I don’t know what approach would be best for me. Any suggestions?


A. I want to answer this question in detail and with a sense of authority. First of all, I use many ideas drawn from art therapy in my work as a result-Oriented Life Coach. In addition, I have experienced the type of depression you describe. Secondly, I authored a comprehensive book on depression. The book was so well received that it is used as a textbook in many college psychology classes. The Introduction is by Jack Canfield of “Chicken Soup for the Soul” fame.






What is Art Therapy?:  Various definitions of the term “art therapy” exist. Generally speaking art therapy (also known as arts therapy) is a specific approach among a more expansive category known as the Creative Art Therapies.  In its current form art therapy includes a vast number of other approaches such as person centered therapy, cognitive-behaviorial,  Gestaltnarrative, Adlerian, and family.

Various approaches to Art therapy originated in the different fields within the arts and psychotherapy, and thus tend to vary in definition. Generally speaking, tenets of art therapy draw from elements in humanism, creativity, reconciling emotional conflicts, fostering self-awareness, and personal growth.






The American Art Therapy Association defines art therapy as: “an integrative mental health and human services profession that enriches the lives of individuals, families, and communities through active art-making, creative process, applied psychological theory, and human experience within a psychotherapeutic relationship.”

The British Association of Art Therapists defines art therapy as “a form of psychotherapy that uses art media as its primary mode of expression and communication”.

Who developed it? Although art therapy is a relatively young therapeutic discipline, its roots lie in the use of the arts in the ‘moral treatment‘ of psychiatric patients in the late 18th century. Art therapy as a profession began in the mid-20th century, arising independently in English-speaking and European countries. The early art therapists who published accounts of their work acknowledged the influence in varying degrees of aesthetics, psychiatry, psychoanalysis, rehabilitation, early childhood education, and art education, on their practices.

The British artist Adrian Hill coined the term art therapy in 1942. Hill, recovering from tuberculosis in a sanatorium, discovered the therapeutic benefits of drawing and painting while convalescing. He wrote that the value of art therapy lay in an approach “which enabled the patient to build up a strong defense against his misfortunes”. He suggested artistic work to his fellow patients. That began his art therapy work, which was documented in 1945 in his book, Art Versus Illness.

The artist Edward Adamson, demobilized after WW2, joined Adrian Hill to extend Hill’s work to the British long stay mental hospitals. Other early proponents of art therapy in Britain include E. M. Lyddiatt, Michael Edwards, Diana Raphael-Halliday, and Rita Simon. The British Association of Art Therapists was founded in 1964.








U.S. art therapy pioneers Margaret Naumburg and Edith Kramer began practicing at around the same time as Hill.  Naumburg, an educator, asserted that “art therapy is psychoanalytically oriented” and that free art expression “becomes a form of symbolic speech which…leads to an increase in verbalization in the course of therapy.” Edith Kramer, an artist, pointed out the importance of the creative process, psychological defenses, and artistic quality, writing that “sublimation is attained when forms are created that successfully contain…anger, anxiety, or pain.” Other early proponents of art therapy in the United States include Elinor Ulman, Robert “Bob” Ault, and Judith Rubin. The American Art Therapy Association was founded in 1969.









What is the basic theory? The purpose of art therapy is essentially one of healing. Art therapy can be successfully applied to clients with physical, mental, or emotional problems, diseases, and disorders. Any type of visual art and art medium can be employed within the therapeutic process, including painting, drawing, sculpting, photography, and digital art.

One proposed learning mechanism is through the increased excitation, and as a consequence, strengthening of neuronal connections.

Diverse perspectives exist on the history of art therapy, which complements those that focus on the institutionalization of art therapy as a profession in Britain and the United States. Art therapy may focus on the creative art-making process itself, as therapy, or on the analysis of expression gained through an exchange of patient and therapist interaction. The psychoanalytic approach was one of the earliest forms of art psychotherapy. This approach employs the transference process between the therapist and the client who makes art. The therapist interprets the client’s symbolic self-expression as communicated in the art and elicits interpretations from the client. As the field of art therapy has progressed through the years some therapists have removed analysis of transference as a component of their work with patients.






What is an art therapy session like?: This will vary from setting to setting. As a mental health profession, art therapy is employed in many clinical and other settings with diverse populations. Art therapy can also be found in one-to-one therapy, in group therapy, in non-clinical settings, as well as in art studios and in creativity development workshops.

   Using their evaluative and psychotherapy skills, art therapists choose materials and interventions appropriate to their clients’ needs and design sessions to achieve therapeutic goals and objectives. They use the creative process to help their clients increase insight, cope with stress, work through traumatic experiences, increase cognitive, memory, and neurosensory abilities, improve interpersonal relationships, and achieve greater self-fulfillment. The activities an art therapist chooses to do with clients depend on a variety of factors such as the client’s mental or emotional state, or age.

Many art therapists draw upon images from resources such as ARAS (Archive for Research).

The focus in most art therapy sessions is less concerned with learning skills or art techniques, and more on the client’s inner experience—their imagination, perceptions, and feelings. The key is to provide clients with tools and an environment for expressing images that come from inside the person, rather than those they see in the outside world. Art therapy is quite different from a traditional art class where a client may be asked to paint or draw from their imagination. Art therapy is seldom concerned with this. It is the inner world of ideas, thoughts, feelings, and images that are always of primary importance.








Art therapy can take place in a variety of different settings. Art therapists may vary the goals of art therapy and the way they provide art therapy, depending upon the institution’s or client’s needs. After an assessment of the client’s strengths and needs, art therapy may be offered in either an individual or group format, according to which is better suited to the person. Art therapy is often offered in schools as a form of therapy for children because of their creativity and interest in art as a means of expression. Art therapy can also benefit children with a variety of issues, such as learning disabilities, speech and language disorders, behavioral disorders, and other emotional disturbances that might be hindering a child’s learning.  Similar to other psychologists that work in schools, art therapists are trained to diagnose the problems facing their student and clients, and individualize treatment and interventions. Art therapists work closely with teachers and parents in order to implement their therapy strategies.


Criticisms:  It is a mistake to present art therapy as a purely formal science. Few approaches in any mental or emotional therapy meet the criteria of formal science and some have no more of a scientific basis than orthodox religion or superstition. The strength in art therapy, even approaches that are “evidence-based” is the clarity of thought, skill, sensitivity, and wisdom of the art therapist.

In response to this criticism, many art therapists point out that they and other mental health professionals use art-based assessments to evaluate emotional, cognitive, and developmental conditions. There are also many psychological assessments that utilize art-making to analyze various types of mental functioning. Art therapists and other professionals are educated to administer and interpret these assessments, most of which rely on simple directives and a standardized array of art materials. Notwithstanding, many art therapists eschew diagnostic testing and indeed some writers question the validity of therapists making interpretative assumptions.


Where to Find the right art therapist for you:  There is a growing list of art therapy and related organizations and guilds around the world. A good place to begin your search is at http://www.atwb.org/what-is-art-therapy/art-therapy-organizations/. This site is an aggregator of different art therapy organizations and associations.


Additional Thoughts related to this approach:  

Many approaches to Art Therapy are closely related in practice to marriage and family therapy as well as other approaches to mental health counseling.  Thus training, licensing, and certification may vary greatly.

An art therapist may have received an advanced degree in art therapy or in a related field such as psychology in which case they would have to obtain post-master’s or post-doctorate certification as an art therapist.

In the U.S. art therapists are licensed under various titles, depending upon their individual qualifications and the type of licenses available in a given state. Art therapists may hold licenses as art therapists, creative arts therapists, marriage and family therapists, counselors of various types, psychologists, nurse practitioners, social workers, occupational therapists, or rehabilitation therapists.  Again, depending on the state, province, or country, the term “art therapist” may be reserved for those who are professionals trained in both art and therapy and hold a master or doctoral degree in art therapy or certification in art therapy obtained after a graduate degree in a related field.

   Other professionals, who do not have a license or certification as an art therapist such as mental health counselors, social workers, psychologists, and play therapists may combine art therapy methods with basic psychotherapeutic modalities in their treatment. No matter what their background, any therapist may better understand a client’s absorption of information after assessing elements of their artwork.

Art therapists work with populations of all ages and with a wide variety of disorders and diseases. Art therapists provide services to children, adolescents, and adults, whether as individuals, couples, families, or groups.

Many Art Therapists incorporate historical art and symbols into their work with patients.

Various studies exploring difficulties in women with life challenging experience as well as fear, pain, altered social relationships, etc., were found to respond positively when engaging with different types of visual art (textiles, card making, collage, pottery, watercolor, acrylics). These women were helped in a number of major ways.

  1. First, it helped them focus on positive life experiences, relieving their ongoing preoccupation with their health challenges.
  2. It enhanced their self-worth and identity by providing them with opportunities to demonstrate continuity, challenge, and achievement.
  3. It enabled them to maintain a social identity that resisted being defined by their health challenges.
  4. It allowed them to express their feelings in a symbolic manner, especially during their slow recovery. Often these recovery periods might include the side effects associated with many drug therapies.
  5. The emotional distress of patients has been reduced when utilizing the creative process. When individuals make drawings of themselves throughout the treatment process while also doing yoga and meditating; these actions combined helped to alleviate some symptoms.








Specific Illnesses and Challenges that Respond Well to Art Therapy.

  1. Various investigations of symptoms of emotional, social, physical, global functioning, and spiritual controls of chronically ill individuals found that art therapy can improve the process of psychological readjustment to the change, loss, and uncertainty associated with surviving a chronic disease.
  2. It has also been suggested that art therapy can provide a sense of “meaning-making” because of the physical act of creating the art.
  3. When given five individual sessions of art therapy once per week, art therapy has been shown to be useful for personal empowerment by helping the patients understand their own boundaries in relation to the needs of other people.
  4. Those who had art therapy treatment felt more connected to others and found social interaction more enjoyable than individuals who did not receive art therapy treatment.
  5. Art therapy has been found to improve motivation levels, the ability of a patient abilities to discuss emotional and physical health, general well-being, and increased global quality of life in chronically ill individuals.
  6. Disaster relief: Art therapy has been used in a variety of traumatic experiences, including disaster relief and crisis intervention. Art therapists have worked with children, adolescents and adults after natural and manmade disasters, encouraging them to make art in response to their experiences. Some suggested strategies for working with victims of disaster include: assessing for distress or post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), normalizing feelings, modeling coping skills, promoting relaxation skills, establishing a social support network, and increasing a sense of security and stability.
  7. Dementia: While art therapy helps with behavioral issues it does not appear to affect worsening mental abilities. Tentative evidence supports benefits with respect to quality of life.
  8. Autism: Art therapy has not been studied much in autism as of 2011.




Art Therapy is a lifehack into using the creative process as a therapeutic tool.

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Ideas of Interest for Life Coaches and Therapists interested in Art Therapy Include:

What is art therapy and how does it work?, Who is the founder of Art Therapy?, What is art based therapy?, What is the role of art therapist?, what are the benefits of art therapy for people with mental illness?, How is art therapeutic, what is the american art therapy association and how can one get certified as an art therapist? The best Art therapy definition, what are some art therapy activities, tips for self-improvement, tips for personal development, the best tips for self help,



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Explore the following concepts to learn more about the idea of being normal

Are You Normal, and What is the Meaning Normal?, Is GLBTQ normal, eccentricity is not normal but it is good, creativity innovation and normal thinking, What is a genius?,  Deine normal, mental illness mental health and normal,


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