This post has been simmering for a long time… Heartfelt thanks to blogger Maria Holm of Health from One Heart to Another for encouraging me to write a post about my experience with this therapy, as a patient, and for her patience in finally getting this response. Maria was a public health care practitioner; she has a big heart for people, loves the arts, travel, and has many other interests too, as you’ll see from her blog.
I hope this post will encourage you to embrace creative activities as natural and essential to your daily life!
What is “Expressive Arts Therapy” anyway? By definition, all the arts are expressive, but what makes them “therapy”? As Wikipedia puts it (with my emphases),
“…the process of creation is emphasized rather than the final product.
Expressive therapy is predicated on the assumption that people can heal through use of imagination and the various forms of creative expression.”*
Four years ago, an enthusiastic young woman named Kimberley offered weekly sessions at our local cancer support organization. For her (who already had a Masters degree) it was a two-semester practicum during a 3-year program in Expressive Arts Therapy; for us, an eye-opening healing experience.
A small group of us women, bald from chemo but bold for life, looked forward to these afternoons, where there was always something new and fun going on! Kimberley exuded a loving, caring attitude. We soon trusted one another with our cancer situations, and bonded through our “artsy” adventures. Just having fun together would have seemed like therapy enough, a break from our treatment protocols. However, it always surprised us how these activities would cut through even our best-buried and barricaded fears and negative feelings, and guide us out to find our own healthy, healing ones.
How did she do it? In general, each session had a common structure. We would arrive, sit down quietly in a circle, and for about ten minutes, individually write or draw in our journals whatever we chose. Next, a basket was passed around into which everyone silently, symbolically, threw in any negative thoughts they needed to get off their chest.
A skillful facilitator, Kimberley then loosened up our chemo-tightened minds, senses, and bodies with a great variety of creative prompts, surprise choices each week. We enjoyed experimenting with various sound makers (shakers, folk instruments, drums, and more); listening to evocative spoken words (including poetry); making vocal sounds or actually singing to express a particular feeling; touching and describing textures of objects hidden in a bag; and doing random dance-like movements across the room, to different styles of music. Self-consciousness was banished! We talked about what we liked or didn’t like, and laughter always bubbled in.
Since our particular group gravitated toward visual art activities, she indulged us with large chunks of time for various mixed media, painting, collage, drawing, colouring, and crafts projects.
Who knew that the physicality of colouring would be so liberating? For example, in one simple activity, we each stood in front of a huge sheet of paper taped to the wall. First, as a physical warm-up, we stood with our backs to the paper, shut our eyes, and drew lines in the air using large, random, fluid arm movements. Then we turned around to face the paper, crayons in hand; again with shut eyes, we drew lines onto the paper with similar fluid motions for perhaps a minute, maybe less. On the signal, we stopped, opened our eyes, and were amazed at the patterns we had made without looking.
Next, we had to colour in the scribbled spaces as we wished, then describe to the group what we felt and saw during our own “art process.” Some responses became metaphorical or symbolic, others just happy in the fun of fooling around with colour, and some deeply emotional (surprising even the artist). Kimberley always knew how to use our responses to help us gain non-judgmental insights into our own hearts.
It’s not surprising that stress-relieving adult colouring books are currently so popular, though I think making your own free-flowing designs would be even more effective.
Whatever art materials we used, I think it’s noteworthy that feelings of relaxation, peace, joy, strength, and hope were most often triggered by scenes and sounds of nature.
Expressive Arts Therapy offers such rich, diverse, and subjective experiences, that my description of a few sessions cannot do it justice. But if you or someone you know is struggling with physical or mental conditions, including trauma or disease, I would encourage you to find such help in your area, to supplement and bolster whatever other treatments you need. While I’m wary of providing internet links for health issues, I think these two sites are helpful and credible, giving insights into how wide-ranging the applications are: Art Therapy Blog and GoodTherapy.org.
- * “Expressive Arts Therapy” is a huge umbrella covering very many aspects of the arts! You’ll be amazed when you see this Wikipedia article overview of “Expressive Therapy.”
- What about everyday life for people in everyday situations? This article “Art does heal, scientists say…” that appeared in the British Telegraph should convince everyone to take regular doses of the arts as preventive medicine, along with their vitamins!