Art therapy: the new mind-body technique? 


It is nothing new to report that what happens in our bodies has a significant effect on what happens in our minds. But arguably over the last twelve months, the connection between our physical and mental health has never been more evident. As the Coronavirus crisis continues to monopolise the headlines, it seems for many of us what started out as a physical health issue has morphed into a mental health problem. 

Whether it’s the stress of being ever-vigilant about our every movement, the resentment that we could still be stuck with this for some time to come, or the anxiety surrounding a new year enveloping us, the physical seed that was sown at the turn of last year in the shape of a virus is reaping a bitter psychological harvest this year.  


Therapeutic benefits of drawing and painting  

So, what’s to be done? Well, it would seem if the problem itself is a mix of physical and psychological factors, it follows the solution should combine both these elements as well. Mind-body techniques such as Meditation, Yoga and Tai Chi have been around for thousands of years, and many of us are turning to these ancient practices to address current concerns. However, as we pull out the mats and roll out the linos, we might consider there is a therapy that can integrate our physical and the mental selves without having to leave the comfort of our chairs. This therapy is art therapy. 

As we learn more about the connection between emotions and health, the brain and immune system, art therapy is discovering new frontiers for the use of imagery and creative expression in treatment. And indeed its roots in the physical realm are there from the beginning. It was British artist Adrian Hill who coined the term in 1942 while recovering from tuberculosis. While convalescing, Hill discovered the huge therapeutic benefits drawing and painting had on his condition: the physical issue he was experiencing was being alleviated in part by the simple action of combing sheets of paper or canvas with soft pencils and brushes. QED. 


Balancing opposites – art as integration 

Drawing can reduce our anxiety and help us to tap into our body’s relaxation response. It can also help us to bridge the gap between current negative events and stored positive memories of past events which we have either forgotten or blocked out. The simple act of drawing a pleasant time appears to be effective because of the sensory capacity of image-making to help retrieve details of happier memories. Recalling memories of positive events in this way can reframe and eventually override negative ones, organising the narratives of our lives – all of which can be helpful in reducing stress especially at a time like this. 

But alongside helping us to relax, reducing our anxiety and increasing positive memory retrieval, it could be argued the most important outcome of art therapy is in helping us find a new path to mind-body integration. Painting is very often concerned with balancing contrasting masses and colours in such a way as to create a new and satisfying unity. What is on the canvas could be mirroring what is going on within us. The artist’s obsession with ensuring a healthy balance in, and between, the images he or she creates might be informing a similar need to create this kind of balance within themselves. For those of us who have felt divided and disconnected by the ongoing crisis, such an insight could be crucial in helping us feel more unified. 

Swiss psychoanalyst Carl Jung has spoken of a newfound unity which signalled his patients’ progress towards integration being expressed by them in symbolic, circular images which he compared with the mandalas used to assist meditation by Tibetan Buddhists. Jung wrote of these mandalas:  

‘As psychological phenomena they appear spontaneously in dreams, in certain states of conflict, and in cases of schizophrenia. Very frequently they contain a quaternity or a multiple of four, in the form of a cross, a star, a square, an octagon etc.’ 

(from The Archetypes and the Collective Unconscious) 


Putting ourselves back together again 

So in our art and the images we produce, are we in fact acting out the process of integration? It is interesting how often in art therapy, symbols featuring crosses and stars and other images resembling mandalas do indeed surface. So, yes, it would appear through the creative process, within these symbols, we are both demonstrating our road to psychological unification and actually creating it within ourselves. Art therapy is working both as a means to integration and a reflection of this psychological process. And through this dual process, we are putting ourselves back together again.  

To reach the essence of our difficult emotions, we must have the capacity to stand back from these feelings and by imposing form on them, process them and integrate them within our minds and bodies. It is only when this psychical distance has been achieved can the necessary symbolisation occur and the integration that follows. In this way we can work on ourselves, objectively seeing the disparate elements within us and within our artwork, and bringing them together in useful themes and styles, working across different mediums, using different paints, oils, brushes and canvases.