Art, Expression, And Self-Compassion - The Truth About ‘Art Therapy’
You may have heard the term ‘art therapy’. You may have rolled your eyes. It sounds like a hokey, hippie kind of deal - ‘Art therapy’. How could splashing paints around or creating a sculpture possibly help with a mental illness or mental trauma? Sure, you can use those experiences to inform and create art - but art as a tool for actually healing from them? Surely not.
In fact, however, art is pretty well accepted in mental health circles as a very valid and helpful method of getting through some pretty tough things. Here’s how - and (as far as we know) why:
Art As Expression
If you’re undergoing mental health problems, or finding it hard to process trauma, the conventional therapeutic wisdom holds that you should express your pain in order to process it. Old-timey ‘talking cures’ were a method of self-expression through which the patient would (theoretically) experience revelations about their state of being, and work through their problems. However, talking and other forms of expression aren’t always useful. For a start, we naturally put up certain barriers, and apply certain faces when talking to others. We can’t open up fully to someone else - particularly when (as is the case with many who struggle with poor mental health) we cannot really open up to ourselves. Art, however, gives many a medium by which to express their thoughts, feelings, and emotions in a ‘safe’ format, free from judgement, and free from the self-censorship which can come from human communication. This in turn leads to revelation.
Art As Self-Comprehension
When expressing oneself through art, one often finds oneself dragging things one did not even know about oneself into the light. This can be a sometimes disturbing process, but it’s always ultimately a worthwhile one. Self-comprehension is essential if one is to develop self-compassion, and self-compassion is in turn essential for healing from mental trauma. While expressing our mental states through art, quite often we find ourselves working our way through unexpected things. We may also find the way we feel about those things changing. The self-expressive art we make gives us a chance to step back and have a good look at ourselves in a way which we best understand. It’s a ‘safe’ form of self-learning which (again) does not necessarily open our souls to the potentially poor understanding of others. Some believe that artistic processes connect us to our subconscious mind, in which the deepest parts of ourselves are stored. It is one thing to be told by a psychoanalyst how you are feeling (and why). It is quite another to reach that conclusion of your own volition, having been taught by your own subconscious through the medium of art. Learning more about how you are feeling and why gives you the psychological tools you need to process trauma and to heal from mental illness. This is the 'breakthrough' any psychologist seeks, and it frequently works wonders for many art therapy patients.
Art Promotes Good Mental Health Practices
Even if you don’t buy into the idea that creating art, self-expression, and self-comprehension are important and self-supporting phenomena, it cannot be denied that art creation (and observation of art!) promotes the kind of skills which are good for your mental health. Take landscape painting, for example. In order to paint a landscape, one must learn to focus. One must learn to observe in the moment, to be patient, to persevere, and to pay attention to the world’s physical details rather than drifting off onto potentially damaging thought-cycles. These kinds of techniques mirror the ‘Mindfulness’ techniques currently all the rage, which teach adherents to live ‘in the moment’ rather than to be constantly worrying, through focus on current sensory information. Mindfulness has been proven in various scientific settings to have a tangible positive effect upon people’s stress levels and general mental health. Viewing art can have the same kind of ‘mindfulness’ benefits - and there’s also evidence that looking at a piece of art which affects us releases feel-good chemical dopamine in the brain. This boosts our mood, promoting good mental health and resilience. All in all, therefore, art is an absolutely fantastic form of therapy - however you interact with it!