Art as therapy

Art therapy is a creative method of expression used as a therapeutic technique.


The benefits of art therapy.

Like meditation or writing in a journal, art therapy is a great way to remove unwanted stress, anxiety and even trauma from one’s own life. One of the benefits is you do not need to record words to do this. Carl Jung (1875 –1961) was a Swiss psychiatrist and psychoanalyst who founded analytical psychology. He was interested in the suppressed feelings and thoughts that we didn’t have time for or were too traumatic to deal with, and how these manifested in our lives. Everyone these days is busy with their lives, be it raising in children or working to pay for our lifestyle. We only have a limited amount of time to consciously process things so when we are busy we tend to push those things that interfere with our lives deep down into our unconscious mind. Say we go through a breakup or have un-dealt with issues from our childhood. Such a thing can be quite traumatic and if not dealt with properly can linger for quite a long time. The best solution would be to take the personal time to sit down and deal with these issues without any distractions or outside influences. Unfortunately most of us do not have the time to do this.



One of Carl Jung's expressions taken from his book "The Red Book"


Another thing preventing us from expressing these unwanted feelings or thoughts is the sheer trauma of them, or maybe we do not want to discuss specific details for fear someone might find out. Art is a great way to turn these memories into pictorial metaphors so that we can express them in a safe and effective way. Carl Jung kept his own personal journal filled with a myriad of different art pieces which would later be called “The Red Book”. He also had a private residence that no-one else visited and decorated the walls with symbols, carvings and pictorial expressions which he would state represented his unconscious mind. He could then sit inside this safe space learning more about himself and evolving as a person.


Different things one can use art therapy for.

When my sister came back from Africa she told me a story of boys who had been stolen from their tribes to be brainwashed as child soldiers. They were given drugs and guns and coerced to kill many people. Some of these boys managed to escape and flee to safe harbors where missionaries would take them in and provide them with food, shelter and nurture. I will never forget the story she told me about witnessing them use art to deal with the many traumatic experiences these children went through. At first they would draw graphic images filled with violence, blood, confusion, sadness, hatred and other negative impressions. As time went by the images would change to happy images filled with sunny days etc. One could draw from this that our minds are like a cup. If we fill the cup up with negativity we have no space for a positive outlook. Using art, one can empty this cup so that it can then be used to collect positive memories.


If we never deal with the negative emotions, beliefs, childhood conditioning and thoughts then our own cup will eventually fill up soo much that it will overflow into our busy personal lives. I guess this brings us to the discussion of what art therapy could be used for.


Quite simply art as a therapy can be used for anything you have been holding onto that you want to let go of. This could include but is not limited to:


An unbalanced upbringing, poor advice from your elders or peers growing up, religious conflicts, being bullied at school, a boss that doesn’t care about you, a friend that has betrayed you, an ex-partner that took advantage of you or didn’t treat you right, narcissistic abuse, physical or sexual abuse, guilt or shame from something you did in the past, insecurities, re-occurring nightmares, things that cause stress, trauma or anxiety etc.


The point of art therapy

Quite simply it is to empty your mind of anything causing you to be distracted from being who you are as a person so that you can express yourself in a way that more represents who you are. We are all unique and as a result have the right to express ourselves differently. Sometimes we live or work in environments that do not allow us to do this 100%. Art is a great avenue to reconnect with ourselves and our unique reality or viewpoint within this world.


Do you need to be an artist to do art therapy?

Definitely not. If you can distinguish between several colours you can use each colour to represent a different emotion. Simply squeeze these colours out of a tube onto a pallet and give each one an emotion. Then you can swipe these colours onto a piece of paper or canvas any way you desire and just let your hand flow as you do so. I would suggest acrylics as a start as they dry quickly and you can paint over the top of them fairly easily.


The beautiful thing about this technique is that it is not about perfection but rather expressing various emotions tied to thoughts you bring up as you journey through your memories. You will be surprised at how many negative emotions we store in our mind if they do not have the opportunity to be expressed. For example your boss berates you for doing something wrong. Your initial thought may be to tell them to f*ck right off but an automatic risk assessment of this reaction tells you not to react because you fear losing your job, so you keep quiet and take the abuse from your boss, fighting any emotions that might now prevent you from doing your work.


In this example you have suppressed several things; your right to defend yourself, confusion and or anger, fear, stress and anxiety to name a few. These are carried with you until you release them. Starting off with various colours you could identify each one with a particular colour and use a paint brush to transfer them onto a canvas. Even the way you use the brush could be a form of expression. For example anger could lead to you smashing the brush onto the canvas, frustration could be a scribble type brush stroke etc. However you release these emotions is perfect for you. There is no right or wrong way to do this and if all the colours mix to make a dirty brown with no image then that is perfect too. The point is to release all the emotions and enter a state of flow where you are remembering how to express the unique person that you are.


The only thing I would suggest is to allow about 1 hour to do this or as long as it takes to feel peace. Like boxing or going to the gym once you have released the emotions you will notice a feeling of peace come over you. Once you feel this peace put the brush down and take note of the picture in front of you. Bring to mind how you felt when you started and what the image looked like and now have a look at what it looks like now. The more you practice this the better you will feel. Who knows you might even want to keep one of those paintings.


Do you need to do art therapy with a psychologist?

The legal response to this question would be to tell you that if you encounter any unwanted emotions that you struggle to deal with reach out to your nearest psychologist or GP and seek medical help immediately. The truth however is no you do not need a psychologist to do art therapy because instead of the psychologist acting as the mirror for you so that you can gaze into your own reflection you now have a canvas or piece of paper as the mirror. You do not need a psychologist to keep a journal and this is the type of journal that uses colours and strokes instead of words. Words essentially are just symbols that we have added meaning to. You can make your own symbols and use images to tell stories that only you have to understand.


With the above said however, personally while I was doing art therapy it brought to light some things about myself that I felt could be solved quicker by talking to a professional so I made the personal choice to seek council from an unbiased person who I knew was there to serve me because I had made a contract with them to do so by handing over money. Sometimes it is good to solve issues yourself, other times when they are a little knotted or confusing it is a lot easier and quicker to run them past someone else. This is a decision I leave with you, because it is your life and you need to express yourself the way you choose to. We are all different.


Are there any other forms of art that make good art therapy practice?

Yes any form of art can help. You could grab a ballpoint pen and create a harsh scribble to represent anger, you could draw simple to complex mandalas, you can fill balloons with paint and drop them from a 10 story building onto a canvas if that makes you feel better, the options are in essence rather limitless as long as whatever you are doing is connected to some emotion or thought that you want to express.


How will I know when the art therapy has been effective?

Quite simply you will find that you start to express yourself in positive way automatically more often than not. You will slowly build up a better resilience to other people. Once you express a lot of the things that have been pushed below your conscious mind (like a beach ball under water) you will have more energy because you will not need to use that part of your mind to keep them from being expressed. They have just been expressed on your canvas. You will eventually gain more clarity and who knows you might even want to make some positive changes in your life by changing the very environments that have caused you to suppress these negative things in the first place.


Is there any benefit from getting art lessons to help with this process?

Although art lessons are not a requirement, if you get to a point where you would like to be a bit more specific with your expression then absolutely pay an artist to teach you some more basics. The reason I suggest you give them money is because, like you, they are providing a professional service in society and if you were doing this, you would probably want money to survive in this world also.


Do I have to keep my images?

Like a journal you can do whatever you want with them. You can keep them, burn them, rip them up or even bury them. It is totally up to you.


How can I find the time to do art therapy?

Make time! Sacrifice 10 minutes of something here or there that you would normally use to distract yourself. This could be less TV time, not checking social media, not playing that game etc. I assure you the benefits of art will be far more rewarding than distracting yourself with mindless activities which will only bring to surface un-dealt issues you could be releasing with art so that you no longer need mindless activities anymore.


What happens when I feel like I have dealt with everything?

Go out and appreciate life. Start to notice all of those things you didn’t previously notice because you were too busy suppressing the things you have now released. Trust me your appreciation for the things around you will increase dramatically. Things that used to bother you will cease to distract you and who knows you might even notice that animal in the tree outside that has been trying to get your attention for the past year.


Can I play music while doing art therapy?

Yes you can however just bare in mind that the music may affect the emotions you feel. If you want to deal with anger and play something uplifting and happy this may or may not interfere with the process. If at any time you feel like the music is causing discomfort then just make sure you turn it off or find something else that more aligns with the thoughts / emotions you are dealing with.


Can I drink alcohol or take drugs while doing art therapy?

Yes but the point / goal is to learn how to do it without these things. If you are using art therapy for addiction and haven’t quit yet, then absolutely do it while on the substance. You will probably feel that after some time of doing art therapy you will eventually bring to light and remove the very things that caused you to consume such substances in the first place.


What happens if I remember a traumatic event while doing art therapy?

Excellent express the emotions straight away even if that means you rip the paper with your pen doing so. If it is too painful to remember the actual memory start with the emotions one by one, be it anger, sadness, hatred, disgust, shame, guilt, fear whatever, express express express. Get rid of those emotions they are not serving you.


What happens if I was abused as a child?

Great express all the emotions tied into that experience. You are carrying it around with you whether you like it or not. Art is the safest and easiest way to express anything that was imprinted in your mind during this time.


What about the confusion left behind from narcissistic abuse?

Great express it. Draw confusion or express it with a colour. Remember your canvas / paper is just a mirror dedicated to you.


What if I zone out while doing art therapy?

Perfect that means you are re-connecting with your unconscious mind. Let this happen and when you snap out of this state you may find an interesting picture looking back at you.


What if I start thinking about one thing and my mind suddenly switches to another thing?

Great just go with it, it might be a journey down a rabbit hole you need to go down. Remember as you release emotions tied to memories you no longer serve them they now serve you. Even if you shave of one or two emotions per memory you are most likely better off. You can always come back and revisit these memories later if you feel the need to.


Remember the point of art therapy is to move the energy of negative emotion out of your memories to be captured by the piece of paper or canvas in front of you.

9 views

© 2020 by Stephen Zanker