Art therapy… and what happens when I paint

I have been considering studying art therapy lately.  Either an Advanced Diploma in Art Therapy or a Bachelor of Arts Psychotherapy.  I have been doing a lot of reading in this area and quite frankly I find it fascinating.  The more I read, the more I nod my head. I have experienced art as therapy myself and see it on an almost daily basis in my studio.There is now a truckload of research that supports the fact that engaging in the arts (including music, dance etc.) can assist healing, recovery, and even memory impairment.  Art can be a tool for communication, reflection, reducing anxiety, anger management and a way of dealing with inner emotions.  I am so excited that art is finally being recognized as a genuine therapy and that hospitals, aged care facilities and mental health teams now include qualified art therapists. Art therapists are now viewed as valued members within these teams.

The definition of therapy according to the English Oxford Dictionary is: – Treatment intended to relieve or heal a disorder. In other word, the treatment of mental or psychological disorders by psychological means. The definition of art therapy is, a form of psychotherapy involving the encouragement of free self-expression through painting, drawing, or modelling, used as a remedial or diagnostic activity.

There have been periods in my life when art has been therapy for me.  I have needed it, thrived off it and healed through it. Art was the vehicle for self-expression when words failed me.  Currently art helps me to maintain good mental health.  It is like a vitamin pill, even though I am not sick perse. In both cases I have found that making art has been an encouraging activity for me creating a positive state of mind and outlook.

I often try to explain how I feel when I create, especially what happens when I paint.  To be honest it is very difficult to explain, kind of like recalling a dream.  But I will give it a go here, because I believe what happens to me must happen to others. This phenomenon is why art can be therapy.

When I paint, I am absorbed in the task at hand. I ask myself many questions like, how can I get that colour?  Is the tone, right?  Is that line there in the right place?  How can I achieve that texture?  Does it convey the right feeling? I am no longer thinking about what am I going to cook for dinner.  I have long since forgotten the stress of having 4 kids, running a business and having a husband who works long hours and travels.  I am not worried about why I am having trouble sleeping or can’t lose weight.

I lose track of time, hours can pass and it only feels like 10 minutes. I seem to block out noise, distractions, even smells.  Occasionally I smell the paint or the turps but it does not grip me.  I can have music playing but don’t seem to hear it.  I once had my playlist on repeat accidently and the same song must have played over and over at least 5 or 6 times before I even realised! It might sound airy fairy, but I feel happy when I paint, content and in my zone.  I have a purpose, I am developing a skill yet I don’t feel any pressure.

On the flip side, what IS happening?  I can clearly identify what isn’t…. worry, anxiety, stress, pressure etc. I believe what I am attaining is clarity. It is focus that I cannot achieve elsewhere. It is brain training that improves my cognitive skills and ability to solve problems. It brings a balance to my life and is self-care for me. Painting builds my confidence and gives me a sense of achievement, it’s like putting coins in my positive mental health piggy bank.

At this point I am going to go off track a little, so bear with me! Measuring my success or achievement while painting was originally like trying to find the holy grail.  Basically, I used to gauge how I was going only by the finished product?  Do people like it, does it look like I anticipated, did it sell etc.? Do I like it? It was quite objective, like ticking off boxes.  Now I measure my success by how I feel.  Let me just say here that there are times when my painting is not fun, when I come away frustrated at my efforts.  I usually find that means I am trying to create when I am not inspired or because I should be creating because I am an art teacher. Mostly though, I approach painting like it is something that is good for my soul, just like exercise is good for my heart.  If there has been a period when I have had no time to paint or I am too tired, I become very frustrated.  Painting releases stress for me like boxing or running 10klms. I have this urge to do something to bring back the balance. Sometimes I cook, sometimes I run, but mostly I paint.

I know art is therapy, because I feel it, I experience it and I see it over and over.  I have seen it help suicidal teenagers, those who cannot function in a school environment and some who are recovering from life-threatening diseases. I have witnessed it help adults deal with separation and loss, those who have been crushed by society or circumstances have used art to be the ladder to get them out of the pit.

Personally, I have had some trials in my life and found art was my lifeline.  I clung to it because it was the only thing in my life bringing me joy, hope and a sense of purpose. I was desperately unhappy and trying to deal with my feelings of hopelessness.  I drew for hours on end, it was an escape for me and I truly believe that my choice to create helped me to avoid other less desirable ways of handling distressing situations.

I could write 5000 words trying to explain how I feel during the creative process but I feel like it is different for everyone.  You may be a writer, a dancer, a musician, a gardener, a home decorator, an inventor, whatever it is that you create, whatever is therapy for you if you feel happy while doing it, then keep on doing it.  Not only that, set aside time to do it and do not feel guilty about nurturing your mental health.  We spend a great deal of time thinking about what we should and shouldn’t eat and if we are getting enough exercise, but often neglect our mental health.  Sadly, it is not until we are faced with a close family member or friend, or even ourselves struggling with depression or anxiety, that we even think twice about what is going on in our brains.

So, as I continue to do my research and read articles about art therapy I know one thing for sure, it works! Give it a go, start quilting or learning the guitar, splash some paint on a canvas or go to pottery classes.  You don’t need to be good at it, in fact you may have never tried it before in your life. You may have loved drawing as a kid but gave it away when motherhood or your career took over.  You may have something on your bucket list you have always wanted to do, like woodworking or making recycled paper. Whatever it is, ignore that negative self-talk, telling you, you are too old, or it’s too hard or whatever…. give it a go!  You will grow as a person, you will fill up your bucket and be able to give to others as an overflow. Nurture your mental health and find your happy place, once you do you will never look back.

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