From the Rodale book, New Choices in Natural Healing for Women:
Art Therapy in Seattle
Let the Pictures Do the Talking
Women being treated at the University of Washington Medical Center in Seattle sometimes get modeling clay with their chemotherapy, paint pots with their postsurgical painkillers or pastels with their kidney dialysis treatment.
That's because in addition to the usual complement of surgeons, cardiologists, oncologists, orthopedists and assorted other medical specialists, the Seattle hospital employs its own artist-in-residence, Dianne Erickson. On any given day, you might find Erickson sketching a young girl in pediatrics, giving a woman in dialysis tips on using pastels or helping someone being treated for cancer piece together a collage.
The hospital's artist-in-residence program, one of several nationwide, is colorful testimony to the potential benefits of recreational art.
"We've found that recreational art relieves patients' boredom, distracts them from pain, provides a pleasurable respite from treatment and gives them something to do when they return home after treatment," says Lynn Basa, the program's director. "They discover they actually like making art once someone's shown them how."
While the Seattle program is completely recreational, other programs incorporate art as outright therapy. At Shands Hospital, an affiliate of the University of Florida at Gainesville, nurses who introduced an art program found that it helped alleviate anxiety and loneliness among those they cared for.
The benefits aren't limited to hospital settings, either. Using biofeedback equipment to measure stress in children, a researcher at the College of Notre Dame in Belmont, California, found that drawing helped ease anxiety. In a similar experiment, another researcher found that adolescents' anxiety levels dropped significantly when they worked on collages using reproductions of great masterpieces.
"Just looking at the works of the old masters greatly reduces stress levels," says Doris Arrington, Ed.D., an art therapist, licensed psychologist, and professor and director of the art therapy and marital and family therapy program at the College of Notre Dame. Dr. Arrington often uses the technique in stress-reduction workshops with adults, asking them to make collages from copies of old-master paintings.
"When you look at art, it moves you out of the ordinary," she explains. "If you're worrying or obsessing over something, looking at art can take you out of that cycle and all of a sudden enable you to move forward."
ART, HEALING AND THE MIND
Though effective in helping patients deal with chronic physical pain, art finds a wider application in the treatment of emotional pain.
Most art therapists are psychotherapists trained in both art and psychotherapy. In institutional settings and private practices, they help men and women being treated for disabilities, trauma or stroke express themselves through art. They work with individuals struggling with chronic mental illness, addictions, depression, anxiety, stress, grief, troubled relationships and legacies of abuse.
Men and women seem to do equally well in art therapy. "But women are likely to be a little more interested in art therapy for self-exploration," notes Harriet Wadeson, Ph.D., a registered art therapist, professor and coordinator of the art therapy graduate program at the University of Illinois at Chicago and author of Art Psychotherapy and The Dynamics of Art Psychotherapy. "I think women are more interested in self-exploration, period."
IN THE STUDIO
What happens in art therapy depends on the therapist's style and your goals. A therapist might recommend couples or family therapy for relationship problems. For clients who have trouble relating to nonfamily members or who would benefit from peer support, she might suggest group sessions. Groups usually bring together people with similar histories or goals--breast cancer survivors, for instance, or women who want to strengthen their self-esteem.
To get things rolling during a session, a therapist might suggest a specific exercise--asking you to draw what you would find if you wandered through a cave, for example. Participants choose their media, anything from paint to clay to papier-mâché. To get a woman to talk about the work she's creating, Virginia Minar, a registered art therapist and past president of the American Art Therapy Association in Mundelein, Illinois, asks questions like, "What does that image mean to you?" or, "Who does this figure represent?"
Though art therapists may cover the same turf talk therapists do, art therapy offers several advantages, according to Dr. Arrington and others.
For starters, it's easier to express troubled feelings through art than through talk because art allows distance, explains Bruce Moon, a registered art therapist and director of the Marywood College art therapy program in Scranton, Pennsylvania. We might not be able to talk about how we feel, but we can talk about how the woman that we drew feels.
"You don't even have to be an art therapist to see the connection," Moon says. "It helps them, though, to create that distance."
While working with images, we're also less likely to censor ourselves, Dr. Wadeson adds. Since we're accustomed to using words to communicate, we're more adept at screening out comments that might be frightening or threatening. Communicating through art, however, we're more likely to have the occasional revealing "slip of the brush."
Artistic ability isn't required in art therapy. "Anyone can make marks on paper. The results can be surprising, and the discoveries that the art provides can be illuminating," says Dr. Wadeson.
WHEN WORDS FAIL
Sometimes, simply expressing feelings through art is enough. "One of the hardest things for many breast cancer survivors is that their families don't want them to talk about the cancer after they've been in remission awhile," explains Minar. "But they're really afraid of a recurrence and they need to express this. Expressing it in art helps ease the fear."
Simply by offering an opportunity to create, art therapy can be empowering, Moon adds. "Making an image or sculpture is putting yourself in a position of being a creator, rather than a victim," he explains. "There's a sense of mastery that enhances one's self-regard."
Art also offers a way to work through difficult experiences, make sense of them and find meaning, Dr. Wadeson notes.
"After my father died, I made art and wrote poetry about it," she says. "Doing that brought about a transformation of the pain I felt. It helped me integrate the pain. Doing something creative helped with the grieving."
Finally, art offers women the chance to explore options, Dr. Wadeson says. One of her clients, she recalls, explored the possibility of divorce. The woman joined therapy after a suicide attempt. "She tried traditional therapy with a psychiatrist, but her feelings were very locked up inside her."
Not so in art therapy. To her surprise, the woman began to draw vivid pictures of herself--violently attacking her husband. Most of her life, it turned out, she'd sacrificed her own wishes for those of her children and her demanding spouse. In art therapy, she realized that she was furious with him. She also drew pictures that spoke of her own sadness--in one she showed her brain, brimming with trapped tears. After she'd spent time exploring and expressing her feelings, the woman began to get more perspective on her situation.
"Eventually, she said that she realized the problems weren't all her husband's fault, and she was able to take some responsibility, too," Dr. Wadeson says. She explored various options in her art, including divorce, depicting herself and her life as it would be if she ended her marriage. Ultimately, she decided against that but began doing more for herself. She started working on art outside therapy, and selling her work, Dr. Wadeson notes.
TRY IT YOURSELF
If you're seriously depressed or struggling in the aftermath of a traumatic experience, it's a good idea to seek professional counseling, say experts. But if you're simply bored, under stress or looking for a way to improve communication with loved ones, you can use art on your own.
Here's how to get started.
Set up a "mini-gallery." Simply looking at art can help relieve stress, Dr. Arrington says. Buy a calendar of artwork you like and put it on your wall, or pick up a glossy art book and keep it near your desk.
Dabble. If you want to create your own art and have little or no experience, choose media that are easy to use and require little preparation or clean up. Dr. Wadeson and others recommend colored pencils, pastels, felt-tipped markers and modeling clay. You can find basic art supplies in the toy, craft or office supply sections of discount stores, drugstores and even grocery stores.
Pound away tension. "Clay is a wonderful medium because it's totally forgiving and allows you to vent a lot of feeling. You can pound it, poke it, rip it, whatever you like," Dr. Wadeson says.
Doodle as you dawdle. Doodling is a reliable stress reducer, Minar says. Keep colored pencils, felt-tipped pens, chalks or pastels in your desk drawer for stressful days at work. Toss your colored pencils into your purse with some paper so you can doodle on the go.
Write your own captions. "I encourage people to keep a journal that includes both writing and drawings," Dr. Arrington says. That way, you can jot down what you were thinking and feeling as you sketched.
Most art therapists are psychotherapists trained in both art and psychotherapy. They may work privately or as a member of a team of caregivers and can be found in hospitals, clinics and schools.
Number of practitioners in the United States: Approximately 4,000.
Qualifications to look for: Registered Art Therapist (A.T.R.) or Board-Certified Registered Art Therapist (A.T.R.BC). Registration requires a master's degree in art therapy or a master's degree with an emphasis in art therapy.
Professional associations: American Art Therapy Association, 1202 Allanson Road, Mundelein, IL 60060; Art Therapy Credentials Board, 401 North Michigan Avenue, Chicago, IL 60611.
To find a practitioner: Contact one of the organizations listed above.
$25 per hour or more at a hospital or in a group setting or $50 to $90 per hour for private sessions.