Research appears to indicate that creative engagement can decrease anxiety, stress, and mood disturbance. It complements the biomedical view [of mental illness] by focusing on not only sickness and symptoms themselves, but the holistic nature of the person. Through creativity and imagination, we find our identity and our reservoir of healing.
-Heather Stuckey and Jeremy Nobel in the American Journal of Public Health
Art Therapy is both a therapeutic approach and a mental health and human services profession. As a therapeutic approach, art therapy uses the creative process and active art making to enrich the social emotional lives of individuals, groups, and families of all ages. It applies psychological theory and human experience within a psychotherapeutic relationship to address a wide range of mental health related concerns such as cognitive and sensory-motor functioning, self-esteem and self-awareness, emotional regulation and resilience, insight development, social skills enhancement, and conflict resolution and reduction (American Art Therapy Association, 2017).
A registered art therapist has completed a master’s degree and post-graduate training, practicum, and clinical supervision. The recognized certification for Art Therapists is an ATR, which stands for Registered Art Therapist and can further move to BC, board certification. Like other disciplines in mental health, Art Therapists must undergo continuing education in ethics and scope of practice as well as ongoing supervision after completing their formal educational training. They work in a wide range of settings, including hospitals, community mental health, and private practice, with a variety of different populations and mental health needs.
Art Therapy and the Brain:
Art therapy is considered a Somatic approach, as the name suggests, it uses the body as a resource for psychological healing and regulation of the autonomic nervous system which regulates bodily functions that include our fight, flight, freeze survival responses. Unlike traditional “talk” therapy, which tends to focus on words and cognition, somatic therapists highlight sensation, a “felt sense”, and gross motor movements, which are manifestations of the autonomic nervous system. Because art therapy uses the creative process, which can be spontaneous, it allows for access to parts of the brain that may not be immediately accessible through language.
For example, individuals with panic disorder are commonly frightened by changes in their breath as an indication of a potential panic attack. Simply changing their beliefs about the panic may change the cognitive reaction to the panic attack but does not necessarily address the nervous system response to whatever in the environment is triggering the change in breathing initially. By using somatic interventions, Clients are better equipped to shift their breathing before thoughts and beliefs are triggered in the “top” part of the brain. Thus, relying solely on the “top,” cognitive, portion of the brain is considered insufficient from a somatic perspective, because the brainstem is in operation and responding to our environment before we may have thought something about our physiology. Moreover, many individuals coming to therapy cognitively “know” they are not under threat when they are having a panic attack, or logically understand that whatever danger they endured in the past has ended. Nevertheless, they still feel terrified, disconnected from experience, or confused.
It is in this circumstance that art therapy becomes very helpful, because it is experiential and process oriented, which is inherently a “bottom” up approach. The art therapist’s ability to attend not only to what one thinks about their creative process related to experiences, emotions, and perceptions, but also to foster an embodied and somatically enlivening creative process can activate the brainstem in ways that may not be accessible from purely talking about those experiences, emotions, and perceptions. Of course, there are times when a cognitive approach is certainly warranted with some Clients, and perhaps even preferred by them.
Art therapists can meet the needs of these clients by using interventions that are more precise, such as pencil or pen. An art therapist may also draw on what is called the “expressive therapies continuum” to assess whether a person who prefers a more precise approach has the preference due to comfort or due to limited access to additional creative processes, such as emotional/affective ones or kinesthetic/sensory ones.
For clients more comfortable expressing themselves without words, orienting toward symbolic and cognitive creative processes can feel natural and very helpful in negotiating their mental health needs. Additionally, if a client is looking to expand their experience of self and their expression, an art therapist may invite the client to use paint or watercolors which are “looser” and allow for more access to affective and perceptual creative processes. As the client is ready to explore spontaneity and perhaps expand and understand their perceptual and sensory experience, creative processes can include clay as a medium to explore sensory experiences related to touch or scented mediums to elicit smell in the Client’s exploratory process.
Over the course of treatment utilizing art therapy, clients will find they now have more access to the entire continuum of experience rather than just functions of the brainstem or neocortex. From a self-regulation-based perspective, this integration is essential. After all, the heart of somatic treatment is to increase a client’s capacity to regulate their autonomic nervous system. Art therapy is one way to do so which is why many somatic approaches, such as Sensorimotor Psychotherapy, Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing, or Somatic Experiencing, draw from art therapy techniques to support regulation in any given treatment.