Arts in therapy and coaching is about using art media as a form of expression and communication in your personal development work. Your art piece is not used to diagnosing but to express your thoughts and feelings. Mounting evidence in neuroscience suggests using arts in therapy heals us not only on a cognitive and surface level but in a deeply emotional and sometimes unconscious way. Arts in therapy and coaching can also be combined with approaches such as psycho-educational, mindfulness and mentalization-based treatments, compassion-focussed and cognitive analytic therapies (BAAT). You do not need to have previous experience or skill in the art, be ‘good at art’, or be particularly ‘creative’ to give arts in therapy and coaching a go.
Why use Arts in Therapy and Coaching?
Not everyone is good at expressing themselves verbally.
Contrary to common beliefs, using arts in therapy is not about being good at art.
Using arts in therapy is about using image and symbols as a primary mode of communication. It offers another way of bypassing the cognitive process and working directly with the neurological and somatic system. It is not an art lesson or an activity group.
You do not need to have used art materials or make a skilled piece of artwork. With the advancement in technology, digital art therapy and online art therapy are also increasingly common.
Imaginative activity in itself is in itself therapeutic. Whilst allowing you to be free, playful and creative, creativity also encourages mini-risk taking and experimentation. It has the potential to enrich a person’s life.
But the power of using creative arts in therapy and coaching extends beyond recreation and relaxation. It can help us release emotions and get in touch with unconscious materials.
When words are not enough, we turn to images and symbols to tell our stories. When you use arts in therapy and coaching, you are expressing yourself in nonverbal symbols and metaphors instead of words.
In imagery, things are not linear- there is no beginning and end as in a verbal story. As it surpasses the rule of language, syntax, grammar, and logic, it can express many complexities simultaneously. Contradictory elements can be included; love and hate for a family member, for instance. If you are someone who experiences contrasting emotions in quick succession, and struggles to articulate what exactly it is that you are experiencing, art may help you to integrate and synthesize conflicting parts of yourselves.
Often in this process, suppressed unconscious thoughts and patterns, forgotten memories, or answers to existential concerns that have no rational solutions would emerge. You may also tap into the power of symbols, archetypes, and ideas that are shared by all of humanity. Using arts in therapy and coaching allows you to integrate the darker side of your psyche, re-integrate what was previously disowned, and in essence, offers a great tool for Shadow Work.
Effective personal development and healing work requires more than an intellectual analysis but rather an experience of how to practically apply new understandings in life. The experience of talking through metaphors and visuals could evoke a sense of “playfulness” in adults, helping one to “let go” of fear of failure and rejection.
A multimodal approach of using arts in therapy and coaching that may include the use of visual imagery, symbols, movement, poetry, music, journaling and play.
Will You Interpret My Imagery?
The use of imagery as a diagnostic tool is a complex and controversial subject. Usually, the meaning of your visual journal, photographs or artwork will be the result of our collaborative conversation, rather than a one-way interpretation from your coach or therapist.
Nowadays, many art therapists advocate not interpreting art but simply allowing the meaning of the material to emerge. This is because using art imagery for diagnosis may obscure the deeper meanings of creative expressions and blocks their healing powers. In other words, we are concerned with preserving the “soul and imagery” expressed in peoples’ art, rather than have them interpreted and oriented to goals and outcomes.
Using Arts in Therapy and Coaching for Mental Health
Using arts in therapy offers one of the most helpful treatments for difficulties in emotional regulation. You may find it useful because of its ability to directly address affect regulation on a neurological level, as well as its potential to unearth deep-seated memories and beliefs. When it comes to emotional healing, arts in therapy can work on a level that talking therapy sometimes does not reach.
Creating art enables communication between the left and right hemispheres. As even the simplest drawing depends on a complex interaction between many brain systems, arts-making offers the possibility to deal with basic sensory building blocks in the processing of information and emotions.
Using arts in therapy offers a two-fold process: Whilst the creative process addresses the right hemisphere of the brain, the verbal articulation of the image and what it represents facilitates links to the language and long-term memory on the left side of the brain. This process of integrating both brain pathways provides a mechanism for stress reduction and affect regulation.
In addition, using arts in therapy makes the work differs from other psychological therapies in that it is a three-way process between the client, the coach and the arts. The art product is known as the ‘container for emotions’. It offers a mean of expression that is cathartic and less damaging to the therapeutic relationship than acting out verbally or physically, clients are therefore able to show aspects of themselves that would otherwise have remained hidden.
Moreover, having an art piece allows for continued exploration, reflection and comparison over a period of time, where words can be easily forgotten and denied. When something is created, the permanence of it offers a unique area of involvement. You can continuously look at the image or the sculpture you have created, be intrigued by it, and eventually be challenged to explore their meanings.
Using arts in therapy and coaching can help people integrate and synthesize conflicting feelings and experiences. Individuals with difficulties regulating emotions may experience contrasting emotions in quick succession, and thus struggle to articulate what exactly it is that they were experiencing.
As art expression surpasses rules of language, such as syntax, grammar, and logic, a myriad of thoughts and feelings may be contained on one page. This capacity for art to contain paradoxical elements can help clients integrate and synthesize conflicting internal states.
Using Arts in Therapy and Coaching for Self Healing
When you use arts in therapy and coaching, visual art like drawing or painting is not the only option available.
The healing power of other forms of expressive arts is increasingly acknowledged. There are various approaches from image interpretations to active visualisation.
Contrary to common beliefs, using the arts in therapy and coaching is not about being good at art. It is simply a way of activating another part of your brain.
You may use imagery, storytelling, music, drama, poetry, movement, dreamwork, combined with therapeutic principles and techniques. You may also will be assigned activities based on the following therapeutic models and principles:
Poetry therapy is the use of the written and spoken word for healing and personal growth. Through the use of poetry, literature, visual journals and song lyrics, we will explore materials hidden in your unconscious, and help you integrate them into your psyche. Poetry is helpful in this process as it helps you express emotions that might otherwise be difficult to express. It also open you up to new ways of seeing your life.
Unlike dream interpretation, dreamwork is not about finding at a particular dream meaning. It is an organic process that explores deeply unconscious thoughts, desires, motives and emotions. While these dreams are personal to you, the symbolic meaning of them often touch on something universal. Therefore, exploration of Jungian archetypes that emerge in your psyche is a big part of this process. I may ask you to keep a dream journal to ‘catch’ your dreams. This is an extremely powerful technique when it comes to exploring what is unknown to us.
Bibliotherapy involves reading specific texts with the purpose of healing. I may prescribe readings on philosophy, poetry, novels and creative non fictions, and sometimes graphic novels or even children’s books. Bibliotherapy can consist solely of reading, or complemented with discussion and art- based activities. There is good evidence that books can help people with many emotional and psychological issues.
Gestalt Therapy is a psychotherapeutic approach developed by Fritz Perls. This approach focuses on the present moment, and on immediate thoughts and feelings, make it a playful, spontaneous and expressive. Gestalt therapy is distinct because it involves action, rather than mere talk therapy. The work often uses role-playing to aid the resolution of past conflicts. Through various experiments, I will support you to directly experience something new, so you have an embodied experience of positive changes, which is ultimately the most sustaining.
Drama therapy is the use of drama and associations to achieve emotional integration and personal growth. It is an active approach that helps you tell your story, achieve a catharsis, deepen your inner experience. Through the art of role play, we can gain perspective on our life experience. Some of the things we might do are Storytelling, Role-playing, Rituals, Improvisation, Mime, creative script writing.
Play therapy uses the therapeutic powers of play to help you resolve psychosocial difficulties and achieve optimal growth and development. Play therapy techniques are not just for children but also adults and your inner child.
Here is an interview I have done with artist Alessia on the healing power of the arts. However, you do not have to be an artist to reap the benefit of engaging in creative arts. To Alessia, each of her painting is an intense emotional reaction to experiences. Through her abstract paintings, she explores identity, existence and anxiety, and she uses this process to heal.
As discussed, visual art is not the only possibility. Writing, poetry and even clay-making can also work.
Here is an interview I did with poet Julia Fehrenbacher.
In this interview, she poignantly captured her creative process: “I think connecting with that source or that quiet place beyond words, the place beyond thought is everything to me. As I learn to do that more and more in my life I feel like it’s a direct connection to the truest part of myself. It makes everything in my life truer and my writing included as I get more connected to my spirituality and to that source place. It changes everything. It opens worlds. It connects me to people and to love and even if that really is just love because really for me that’s what it is. It’s connecting to love.”
This article is written by Imi Lo.