What is art therapy?

Art therapy is used to help people manage physical and emotional problems, by using creative activities to express their emotions. It provides a way for people to come to terms with emotional conflicts, increase self-awareness and express unspoken – and often unconscious – concerns about their illness and their lives. “Expressive arts therapy” or “creative arts therapy”, may also include the use of dance, body movement, drama, poetry, and photo therapy, as well as more traditional art methods”, reports cancer.org.

Many clinicians have observed and documented significant benefits among people who have used art therapy. Art therapy has not yet been studied scientifically to find out if it has specific value for people with cancer.

Art therapy is based on the idea that the creative act can be healing. According to practitioners, or art therapists, it helps people express hidden emotions, reduces stress, fear, and anxiety, all while providing a sense of freedom. Many art therapists also believe the act of creation influences brain wave patterns and the chemicals released by the brain that encourage healing.

Art therapy may also be used to engage and distract patients whose illnesses or treatments cause pain.

Artwork may also be used as a diagnostic tool, particularly with children, who often have trouble talking about painful events or emotions. Art therapists say that often children can express difficult emotions, or relay information about traumatic times in their lives more easily through drawings than through conventional therapy.

What does it involve?

People involved in art therapy are given the tools they need to produce paintings, drawings, sculptures, and many other types of artwork. Art therapists work with patients individually or in groups. The job of the art therapist is to help patients express themselves through their creations and to talk to patients about their emotions and concerns as they relate to their art. For example, an art therapist may encourage a person with cancer to create an image of themselves with cancer, and in this way express feelings about the disease that may be hard to talk about or may be unconscious.

In another form of art therapy, patients look at pieces of art, often in photographs, and then talk with a therapist about what they have seen. A caregiver or family member can also gather artwork in the form of photographs, books or prints, and give the patient a chance to look at and enjoy the art.

Many medical centers and hospitals include art therapy as part of inpatient care. It can be practiced in many other settings, such as schools, psychiatric centers, drug and alcohol rehabilitation programs, prisons, day care treatment programs, nursing homes, hospices, patients’ homes, and art studios.

What is the evidence?

Numerous case studies have reported that art therapy benefits patients with both emotional and physical illnesses. Some of the potential uses of art therapy to be researched include reducing anxiety levels, improving recovery times, decreasing hospital stays, improving communication and social function, and pain control.

Are there any possible problems or complications?

Art therapy is considered safe when conducted by a skilled therapist. It may be useful as a complementary therapy to help people with cancer deal with their emotions. Although uncomfortable feelings may be stirred up at times, this is considered part of the healing process.

Written by Emma McKinney