Deciphering your doodling
Do you ever pick up a pen and find yourself doodling? While many of us do this when we’re bored, in the 1940s, doctors began noticing individuals experiencing mental ill-health frequently used drawings to express their feelings. Not long after, the term ‘art therapy’ was coined by Adrian Hill, a British artist who noticed the wellbeing benefits of drawing and painting while recovering from tuberculosis. Today, art therapy is an established and regulated profession.
As clinically trained professionals, art therapists work in schools, hospitals, health centres, community spaces and arts centres where they use creative techniques (drawing, painting, collage and sculpture) and creative materials (pencils, clay, pastels, felt tips, paint, 3D) to help children and adults express and understand emotional conflicts, reduce anxieties and improve self-esteem.
The significance we attach to our images
Art therapy is different from an art class where you might learn new skills or aim to improve a craft. Instead, there is no expectation the participant will be good at either making art or drawing as the artwork is used as a therapeutic and communication tool. Here, the real work happens in the relationship between therapist and client, the significance clients attach to their images, the insights images trigger and the stories they tell. So even shapes, squiggly lines and stick people can be laden with personal meaning.
Although traditionally used to support mental health challenges such as depression, substance abuse, eating disorders and post-traumatic stress, art therapy can also be adapted to identify strengths and build resilience. By giving ourselves space to illustrate our challenges, the images and the conversations that arise from them create self-awareness and spark the connections that lead to understanding, personal growth and healing.
Beginning the process – our first collage
For children or adults who have trouble expressing their feelings in words, the stories and descriptions we form around our creations can help shed light on our perceptions and beliefs. For those who are nervous about making art, summoning the courage to approach a blank page can also offer an important first step toward negotiating fears and anxieties. As it can be easy to get swept up in the creative process, many people describe art therapy as not only enlightening but also engaging. And because art therapy is an extremely flexible tool, the techniques can be adapted to suit the interests, needs and goals of participants.
Try some art therapy for yourself…
If you’re curious about understanding what art therapy might feel like, creating a collage can be a great place to start. Taking a positive psychology approach (the science of human thriving), begin by priming your activity with an encouraging or optimistic theme such as ‘things I am grateful for’. Try flicking through some old magazines and choosing words and images that capture your interest. As you build your collage, see if you find a story unfolding. Creative activity enhances our mood, which in turn frees up our mental resources, making space for insight and fresh ideas to come through. So, as you work, notice what pops into your head – a song lyric, a saying, a story – as other useful information your unconscious is hoping to share.
By completing this interesting exercise, you will be surprised at the insights you will see about yourself. Go on – give it a try.