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Mending the Heart--Calming the Mind With Art Therapy

Mending the Heart--Calming the Mind  With Art Therapy

Victoria Van Zandt, MA

Children gravitate towards the use of art and approach creativity with imagination and freedom and play without judgment or self-criticism. They enjoy experimenting with new art materials and soon discover creative tools to handle difficult emotions such as anger. As we age, we begin to seek perfection in ourselves and, through creative expression, clients can learn to silence the voice of the internal critic and become more self-aware of their negative thoughts and irrational beliefs. I invite clients to let the page hold the feeling(s) where we can explore them together. I suggest to clients that, instead of letting the feeling fester inside of them, why not allow the art to be the container. If a client has a reaction to an art piece, I provide a safe place to explore the feelings that surface. Many adults are surprised how art can facilitate the expression of feelings and emotions easier and quicker than traditional talk therapy. I explain that when we look at an image of a loved one or a visual image of a place that we have strong feelings for, we many times experience a physical response. It is the same when we engage in expressive art. In the last few years, scientific research has discovered how fear-based emotions, negative thoughts and suppressed feelings can trigger physiological stress on the body in turn directly affecting the immune system. As we begin to heal emotional wounds, the body begins to heal also. One of the goals I have when working with a client is for them to find balance between the right and the left brain where they are not residing completely in their emotional brain or living stictly in the analytical brain.

Art therapy is a master’s level profession with training in psychology and visual arts. When seeking an art therapist, it is important to work with someone who is trained in the field of art therapy or expressive arts. Many therapists introduce art into sessions, though they may not be trained specifically in art therapy. It is important to know how to introduce the art and how to process the client’s experience of the artmaking.

When asked how I work, I explain that I invite clients to take part in an art directive. For instance, I might ask, “What might that anger look like if you put it down on paper?” “What color, shape, or size might it be?” I might suggest that they use their nondominant hand to draw or that they create an image out of clay that represents how they feel that day. Even the simple act of doodling can provide a relaxing and contemplative experience. For people that suffer from anxiety and an over active right brain, I recommend they keep a doodle journal with them. This way, when they begin to experience worry or anxiousness, they can learn to calm themselves with the act of doodling. If a client feels uncomfortable drawing, I offer alternative art forms, such as collage using magazine cutouts. During the artmaking process, I recommend to the client that they work without talking in this way the nonverbal right brain is dominant allowing easier access to emotions. I leave time to discuss the artmaking and time for any other reflection the client might have. I keep the art in a safe place or, if the client wishes, they can bring their art home with them. I provide all of the art materials including pastels, markers, crayons, colored pencils, paint, collage materials, clay and paper. Where the imagination is concerned, the items we can work with is endless. Children love working with pipe clearners popsicle sticks and “Model Magic” as these objects provide a tactile experience for them. For both the young and the old, the practice of art therapy is a safe place where feelings and imagination can meet.

More information about art therapy can also be found on the website of the American Associations of Art Therapy (arttherapy.org).


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