When life starts to go sideways with mood issues or relationship problems, plenty of people turn to traditional talk therapy to get a handle on their hang-ups. But if you want more of a novel approach, instead you might consider adding a healthy dose of creativity with a side of talk therapy to iron out the wrinkles.

Some people turn to art therapists to help them brave the turbulent waters of life. According to the American Art Therapy Association (AATA1), art helps people tap into a reservoir of tools that use creative expression to solve problems, increase self-awareness and decrease stress.

But it also helps people tackle difficult issues from anxiety and trauma to problems with substance abuse, relationship difficulties, or disabilities rooted in social emotional problems.

Art for Psychological Healing

Here’s how it works. A master’s level licensed counselor or psychotherapist guides their client through activities like drawing, painting or working with clay to evoke the creative process. By integrating talk therapy and creative expression, the art becomes a visual dialogue which enables people to tell their story in a way that words alone cannot.

Longmont Art Therapist, Ann Noble, LPC, ATR says that art therapy works especially well for people who are non-verbal or have introverted personalities.

As thought and emotion pour through the medium, visual images come to display what someone is thinking, but not necessarily what they are saying. Nobel says it helps people start “tapping into something very deep.”    

She used art to help one client express sexual abuse—something for which he could not find words.

“He began to draw pictures of himself and then draw his genitals, and then scribble them out. I think it helped him work through these things in his life. He actually talked about the experience with me,” said Noble.

In a 2014 study that published in the Journal of Evidence-based Complementary and Alternative Therapies, researchers analyzed data from 13 different studies that compared various forms of art therapies, defined as music, movement and dance or art therapy, and their effect on women with breast cancer. Researchers concluded that art therapies improved anxiety among these women, while results were not as favorable for the women struggling with depression. 2

Artful grieving

Losing someone you love is undeniably one of the most difficult emotions for humans to comprehend and learning to move on afterwards may not feel any easier. 

Art therapist, Amanda Hillman, LPC, ATR, works at Pathways Hospice in Fort Collins and teaches people to work through grief by creating memory boxes or collage, which is an assemblage of meaningful images, colorful papers and other “found” medium.

The projects help people “contain the flooding of emotions,” she says.  “It lets us put something down on paper or in the box— take it from inside of you and put it into the art, which is tangible,” she adds, unlike emotions and grief, which are intangible.

After creating their artwork, Hillman says, “They can see it, open it, close it; they can talk to it,” which she says, helps them relate to their feelings differently.

Think of it as a way of experiencing emotions in smaller, more manageable doses and being given a way to dial down the intensity of the scariest, most harmful of them. 

“Considering the range of overwhelming feelings brought on by grief, it’s normal to want to avoid pain,” says Hillman. But you can only avoid it or distract yourself for so long. “Eventually we must confront pain,” she says, “otherwise, the body responds in other ways.” Common complaints include sleep disturbances or lack of concentration.

This is where art can be a useful way to tackle the sadness. While you may want to turn away from pain, Hillman says turning towards it starts the healing process. And if you choose artful expression to help you, it may become a bridge that carries you over the torrent of pain that’s trying to consume you.

Healing2Other ways to use art

Noble also runs Art Escapes, an art-based workshop focused on stress reduction for busy professionals.

Longmont resident Amy Stoehr decided to give Art Escapes a try in hopes of adding more calm into her hectic life. That’s because she runs Real Estate Masters Guild, a real estate coaching business that sometimes leaves her overscheduled and without enough downtime.

“It appealed to me because I need to get out of my head,” she said.

Stoehr recalls one project that started out as an ordinary shoe box, something she later transformed into a vessel that contained answers about the importance of scheduling in more quiet time.

As her creative juices started flowing, she said the experience helped her reconnect with herself allowing unexpected feelings to bubble up to the surface. 

“We had access to a whole host of random supplies, from popsicle sticks, to patterned papers, it’s an emotional decision to go after things you like,” she said.

As the boxes took shape, Noble guided the group along and helped them see the meaning in their art. She did this by asking insightful questions, said Stoehr.

Noble says she asks people how they feel about their art, or whether it reminds them of something specific.

For Stoehr, the turquoise colors she chose helped her see a side of herself she sometimes forgets about—her quiet, introspective side.

“To see how things came together in my box was fascinating. It’s a reflection of you. The colors and  textures I chose say a lot about who I am,” she said. “It was a reflection about what’s going on in my life, and what’s frustrating to me.”

The visual imagery of Stoehr’s box keeps reminding her to schedule in more time for nature, meditation and relaxation—things that help her indulge that quiet introspective side.

To find a Colorado art therapist, go to arttherapycolorado.org and click on the locator tool.

By Elise Oberliesen, Longmont Magazine

1 arttherapycolorado.org/what-is-art-therapy.html  / 2 ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/24817896, realestatemastersguild.com/about-us/?doing_wp_cron