From the earliest days, humans have expressed themselves through art, creating images and symbols that reside beyond the spoken or written word to communicate their inner landscape. Art allows one to access and express parts of the psyche that are not yet conscious.
Art therapy is a tool that enables us to explore and express our inner world in order to heal and live a more authentic life. In Western culture, many people feel disconnected from themselves, the land, and their community. Transpersonal Art Therapy attends to healing this alienation rather than focusing entirely on the individual’s pathology. It is a holistic approach that focuses on the health of the body, mind, emotions, soul, and spirit.
The necessity of art therapy for mental health is not a new concept to the world. The term ‘transpersonal’, which literally means ‘beyond the personal’, marries psychology and spirituality. It unites ancient and modern wisdom, and offers a range of tools and techniques to explore the many aspects of our existence.
Expressive Art Inspirations
The Transpersonal Art Therapist’s role is to build a bridge between their world and the world of the client so that they can facilitate the client to discover their own innate potential and healing. The therapist assists the client to understand, amplify, and develop their inner symbolic language.
It can be said that a symbol has a universal meaning. However, it also has a meaning that is personal and will be different for every person. For example, if I draw or dream of a snake I can explore world mythology to get a sense of its universal meaning (eg., rebirth, shedding of skin). In my personal experience, snake has always indicated, among other things, the beginning of a new adventure, with the anticipation and trepidation that it evokes. Here, an art therapist will help you understand meanings through art therapy painting technique.
Most people seek therapy as their story is no longer working for them. Transpersonal Art Therapy offers tools to re-script the myth so that life is imbued with meaning and fulfillment. Like the Angophora tree which embraces its own wound and heals from within, we all have the potential to re-invent ourselves and our lives.
Become an Art Therapist
Many people feel that they need to be artistic to become benefit from an art therapy session. Nothing is further from the truth. It is the process and what is revealed that offers the healing potential, not the skill involved or the finished product.
I find that students or clients who are skilled artists can become overly concerned with skill and become attached to the product. I will ask them to swap to their non-dominant hand to allow something deeper to come through. The therapist may use collage, clay, and various other mediums for expression.
You must complete an art therapy course to be qualified as an art therapist. You must also undergo an internship where you practice art therapy activities in a real-life setting.
Experienced Art Therapist Skills
While artistic talent is not necessary, being a successful art therapist requires excellent listening and communication skills, patience, and an interest in human behaviour. Because you will have to develop art therapy ideas to suit various purposes, you will also need to be creative. But the most important skill you need is empathy and an ability to help your clients communicate their feelings through artistic mediums.
What Would People Use Art Therapy for?
Many people try art therapy to overcome issues in their life, such as relationship problems, depression, or the loss of a loved one. Art therapy can help clients to reconcile emotional conflicts, foster self-awareness, develop social skills, solve problems, reduce anxiety, provide orientation, and improve one’s self-esteem.
I have found that many people also seek a transpersonal practitioner as they have a sense that there is more to life, and that they are not living their full potential. Gurdjieff uses the analogy that we are a mansion. However, we are choosing to live in only one or two rooms. Transpersonal work is a path towards self-realisation that offers tools for us to delve into hidden dimensions of ourselves and retrieve and embody these riches in our life.
During our lifetime, we face many transitions. For example, we grow from child to adolescent, from being single we eventually get married, and there are rites of passage to help us mark these changes in our lives. Transpersonal Art Therapy offers rituals and tools that help us navigate through these turning points.
The power of art therapy is beginning to be recognised and it is becoming more prevalent in a wide variety of arenas. It is utilised in private practice, in hospitals, schools, with dementia patients, children, and adolescents. Different art therapy techniques may be applied based on each patient’s requirements.
Art therapy refers to any use of art for a therapeutic purpose, including relief from anxiety and stress.
For stress and anxiety, art therapy activities can help patients symbolize their looming fears and reframe them in a more realistic and less terrifying manner. Art therapy for anxiety can be a useful part of a complete treatment strategy.
Helping patients express their emotions can be challenging in talk therapy. Emotions too scary or too complicated to put into words may be better expressed in art. Patients often find unexpected emotions breaking through as they work on a sensory-based art project. Art therapy can help them integrate mind and body.
By creating a space where emotions can be addressed and fears are tamed, art therapy gives patients a much-needed boost in their self-esteem. Developing creative abilities and learning new forms of expression can help patients develop a new, more empowered sense of self.
Major depression – persistent feelings of sadness, emptiness, and apathy – is one of America’s most common psychological disorders. While many doctors treat depression with medication and talk therapy, many are looking at other modalities like art therapy for depression.
Art therapy for depression can provide patients with a focus that lets them explore their feelings of sadness and emptiness in a creative and contemplative way. One of the great benefits of art therapy is the way it can help provide depressed patients with a new perspective on the world.
Art therapists may ask their clients questions about their current state of health and about the themes they would like to explore through their artwork. Making a family sculpture, coloring mandalas, or free-form painting are just some of the art therapy techniques that help with one’s depression.
A recent review of the research into art therapy for adults looked at a number of different interventions and found evidence of the benefits of art therapy for adults in treating depression, anxiety, dementia, Alzheimer’s disease, schizophrenia, and autism.
In conjunction with talk therapy and medication, art therapy activities for adults can improve cognitive and sensorimotor functions, foster self-awareness, improve self-esteem, and cultivate emotional resilience.
Perhaps most important, art therapy can be a great way to relax. While talk therapy can be emotionally rigorous and draining, art therapy is soothing. Quiet creativity can provide stability when patients need it most.
While there are differences between art therapy techniques for adults and children, art therapy can be a way for both parents and children to communicate. A child who lacks the vocabulary to describe feelings or situations may have no trouble expressing them in art.
Children are naturally creative, and art therapy for children is a simple way for a child to express their feelings. Children are also naturally fascinated by different art mediums, and will happily use paint, clay, markers, or anything at hand to document their experiences and feelings.
Art has been shown to be a highly beneficial intervention tool for children with autism. Art therapy for autistic children enhances communication and strengthens creative expression. It can strengthen imagination and abstract thinking, visual and spatial skills, and emotional and sensory regulation.
Art therapy for mental health offers a safe environment where patients can explore and release their emotions in a constructive way. Mindfulness art therapy activities help you deal with negative emotions and develop a sense of clarity about your feelings and thoughts.
Group art therapy enables the visual expression of emotions, perceptions, and thoughts while developing creative potential and group cohesion. Group art therapy has proven particularly effective in schizophrenic patients but can also be a useful modality for any affinity group.
What Is Involved in Art Therapy?
Transpersonal Art Therapists have a wealth of art therapy resources, tools, and techniques to work with clients. Joseph Campbell compares our journey through life to the heroic journey. We are all heroes and heroines of our life and need to meet with the denizens of the deep in order to heal and live to our full potential. In contemporary Western society, many people are without maps or a working mythology to guide and inspire their life. During their ongoing work, the therapist may use mapping to enable a visual representation of where a person is in their life.
During an art therapy session, the therapist would begin with client-centred counseling to establish a rapport and get an insight into why the client is seeking therapy. Various techniques would be offered to help the client explore their issues or life concern. The therapist may then take them into a process, for example, a guided visualization to access deeper waters.
An art process would be offered and then the therapist would amplify the symbols and how it relates to the client’s present life.
A Case Study: Art Therapy Used Successfully in Healing
A client I worked with has given permission for me to share the healing journey she began in our art therapy sessions. After 25 years of marriage, Julie’s (alias) husband left her without forewarning. He had waited until their second and last child had moved out of their home. Whilst Julie had a circle of social friends, she did not feel deeply connected. She had not worked in outside employment since her marriage.
When Julie rang, I explained that my role was to offer her techniques through art therapy activities that had the potential to facilitate her accessing her wisdom and resources. Her response was, “I do not have any wisdom or resources”. When I went on to articulate the principle that everybody has these qualities within themselves and that art therapy could help her access them, she expressed delighted surprise.
Understanding the problem is the first step of any problem-solving. There’s no exception to this rule. In art therapy projects, the therapist will do the same to get the best out of the treatment.
Julie had been absorbed for the last twenty-five years within her world which only revolved around her husband and children. She did not have an identity outside of this structure and was facing disintegration with nothing to hold onto. Julie was extremely open to the work and entered it with courage and determination. She had always had an interest in transpersonal art as therapy but had not done anything concrete about engaging with it.
Starting Art Therapy Journey
Our work began with her mapping her present situation. Julie resonated with mandalas — a circular template that represents the whole self. This was an excellent technique as it gave structure and holding to her work. Art therapy exercises for adults could be defined in different levels, starting from simple drawings or very conceptual ones like mandalas.
In one of our early sessions, she created two mandalas —– one representing her present situation and one representing who she was becoming and her future hopes. In the latter part of her therapy, she shared how the Mandala of Hope that was hung on her bedroom wall had become her guide and mentor in between sessions.
Many times during earlier sessions, Julie would thank me for my advice and insight. Reflecting back to her, she became increasingly more aware that these pearls came from herself and I was merely feeding back material that had come from her engagement with her artworks and processes. Julie was used to placing her identity, wisdom, and insight onto others and the reclamation of this over time enabled her to begin to carve out a new identity where she knew her own opinions and what she wanted for herself in her life.
After nine months of intensive work, Julie left regular therapy and continued to implement changes in her life, including a daily mandala, joining a meditation group, and doing volunteer work. She would intermittently ring up for an appointment when she reached a roadblock. In the last session, she spoke about studying art therapy as it had been the turning point in her life and she believed she could offer a lot to women in her situation. This is an example of the wounded healer, someone who has used therapy to heal and now wants to develop the skills to give back and support others on the journey in art therapy groups.
About the Author
Vicki Dean has over 30 years of experience within the creative and healing art. Alongside her private practice, she has worked extensively as a lecturer, group leader, facilitator, and movement tutor.
7 Art Therapy Exercises to Make Your Mind, Body, and Spirit Sing:
• Depict your emotions using paint or colored pencils
• Squeeze out a stress sculpture in clay
• Make free-form brushstrokes with colored paint and see what comes out
• Make a silly cartoon of one of your fears
• Draw swirls in a box of sand
• Draw yourself as an animal, a superhero, or a tree
• Make a stuffed animal you can squeeze when necessary
7 Activities That Can Be Therapeutic for You and Your Family and Can Bring Everyone Closer:
Your family could reap many art therapy benefits from Therapeutic Art activities like:
• Putting on a puppet show
• Drawing things you’re thankful for
• Painting a picture you all work on together
• Drawing something that makes you happy and something that makes you sad
• Draw pictures of your family as superheroes
• Make a clay family sculpture together
• Play together with early childhood toys
Research on art therapy and anxiety suggests that it can be a very effective, efficient, and non-threatening treatment approach for people who are struggling with social anxiety disorder. Art therapy helps anxious patients shift their perspectives and provides them with an outlet for emotions that they cannot express in words. The process of creating art also helps patients with social anxiety disorder concentrate on the present and move away from their free-floating fears.
Art therapy activities enhance brain function by impacting brain wave patterns, emotions, and the nervous system.
The process of making art, or even simply looking at art, can raise serotonin levels, which can alleviate many forms of depression.
Making visual art like paintings and drawings enhances activity in the visual cortex and increases functional brain connectivity between the left and right sides of your brain, improving focus and strategic thinking.
While artists work to improve their technique and improve their artistic ability, art therapy is not an art lesson — it is grounded in the knowledge of human development, psychological theories, and counseling techniques.
Art therapy techniques give patients a safe space to express their emotions, work through traumas, and engage in self-reflection and personal discovery. The goal is not to produce beautiful art but to use the act of creation as part of the healing process.