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Expressing Anxiety and Mental Illness through Art Therapy

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Artistic skill is not required to participate in art therapy. Whether you sketch people as stick figures or awesomely as Da Vinci, mastery is not what art therapists look for. They see art as a self expression that facilitates healing and allows people to reveal themselves symbolically. It is a means of communication.

Art therapy is a mid 20th century invention that started with an observation. Doctors noticed that people diagnosed with a severe mental illness frequently communicated better through art than by speaking. Over the decades, this discovery has continuously grown and developed.

Though art therapy is still used with chronically ill mental health patients, today it’s a tool for stress and pain management, addiction treatment, illness management, disability therapy, and more.

Therapy and the Therapist.

Healing happens as people splash their feelings and thoughts into the open with paint brushes, or get in touch with their emotions by molding a brick of clay. While engaged artistically people relax, concentrate, enjoy control over the medium they are using, and earn a sense of accomplishment. What makes this different than doing art at home is the therapist.

Art therapists are trained to search their client’s work for metaphors or symbols of things not consciously expressed. For example, they glean information from the client’s choice of colors, and the type of strokes they use. Though many people see art metaphorically, art therapists are also trained psychotherapists. They view client’s symobols through the filter of psychology.

Anxiety and Art Therapy

Anxiety is often generated by ruminating on the past or fretting over the future. It can be fueled by unexpressed emotion, a sense of powerlessness, feeling stuck, or overwhelmed. Whatever the source, anything that takes an anxious mind away from anxiety producing thoughts, or allows expression of the unexpressed, will bring some amount of symptom relief. Add to this a therapist's expertise.

The counselor will take time to discuss the artwork with the client. They are interested in what the artist sees or feels about the work, and share their professional observations as well. A client may not agree with everything the therapist suggests, but it’s a good idea to remain open-minded. We often believe we know our anxiety’s source, but art therapy sometimes uncovers helpful surprises.

During a session, the therapist may ask their client to paint, draw, or sculpt whatever they please, or may ask him or her (or the group) to work on something specific to their diagnosis or problem. For example, a person with PTSD may be asked to think about their traumatic experience and express it in a painting. An anxious individual might be asked to draw everything they are afraid of, or a setting they would feel safe in.

This type of counseling provides a sense of security for some clients. Many people are more comfortable expressing difficult memories, feelings, or situations via art than by sharing verbally. Art therapy is sometimes a stepping stone, a means of “talking” before someone is ready to put things into words.

Art is a Powerful Tool

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe wrote, “There is no surer method of evading the world than by following Art, and no surer method of linking oneself to it than by Art.”

You can say something similar about art therapy. It helps people evade their world, its problems, and say the inexpressible. Simultaneously it is a means of grounding our self in the world.

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