How Does Art Therapy Work?

Art therapy grew out of psychodynamic theories reimagined. The school of approaches to psychology that we could loosely call ‘depth psychology’, has always been interested in the unconscious mind/ thoughts. Many techniques were developed to try to tap into the unconscious, automatic parts of ourselves. For example, word association tests seek to have the individual answer without taking time to ‘think’ through an answer.

Through observations, anecdotal reporting, and study by classically trained psychiatrists, such as Carl Jung, the understanding began to take form, that art as a reproduction of the mind’s eye may contain information that is both informative to the practitioner, and therapeutic to the client.

Our own minds can be scary places.

(Also fanciful and creative places.)

It is important to understand how the brain interprets signals, and responds to stimuli to fully understand the impact of arts making on our well- being and mental health. The neuroscience of Arts Therapies is a fascinating area of study, with a growing body of work to draw from. Another post will look at some of the most significant findings of this research. Here, it is enough to say that our brains interpret the signals of our bodies’ responses to environmental stimuli (sometimes, the interpretation may be quite wrong.)

In an art therapy session, the therapist sets the stage so that the client/ artist can become aware of their body’s responses. This includes mindfulness exercises, introduction of different types of arts materials, and most importantly, creating a safe container for the unfolding of difficult feelings.

By taking the time to become mindful, the art therapist encourages the person he/ she is with to attend to what is happening in the body in the present moment. Becoming aware of the ‘felt sense’ is the key to what our mind/ bodies hold: this is true of both the difficult experiences that are held within, and the potential for creating new ways to be with or reframe our experiences.

Mindfulness, and awareness of our felt sense, can in turn, transform into the expression of art making. This expression can be transformative to the individual- freeing the body of the painful memories, and also the interpretations of the memories.

Creating something that comes from the true felt sense of our experiences has an enormously profound effect on our own feelings of agency. We are thus empowered to make choices that were previously out of reach.


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