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Susan Ann Darley: The Healing Power of Art Therapy

From a boy to a combat soldier, people of all ages find the creative process empowering

I can’t draw a stick figure. At least that’s what I used to tell myself. Yet, my mom painted prolifically as a hobby. Her oils and watercolors graced a two-story-high wall in our home.

One day while visiting her as an adult, I picked up a brush, filled a palette with the luscious colors of nature and set out to prove “I can.” And I did. The finished work of art (so to speak) even earned a spot on my wall.

That experience of blasting an old belief off my radar has empowered me to do and conquer many challenges when my head says, “No way.” Expressing myself through art killed off zillions of my ancient bottom-feeder sucker emotions that thrive on keeping me paralyzed with fear.

Yes, art heals.

And often through the modality of art therapy, which began to emerge as a distinct profession in the 1940s. Art therapists, trained in therapy and art, use art to improve and enhance the physical, mental and emotional well-being of individuals of all ages.

Art therapy can help people resolve conflicts, develop interpersonal skills, reduce stress, manage behavior, and increase self-esteem and self-awareness.

I know firsthand because my grandson at age 6 worked with an art therapist for a little more than a year to work on his anger issues.

Each visit he would draw, paint, build, color or use one of the many aspects of the creative process to express his feelings and increase his conscious awareness of himself and others. His therapist would then help him by talking about how he felt while creating his art, among a variety of other techniques.

It worked. Today he is 15 years-old, 6 feet 4 inches tall and about 245 pounds, and one of the kindest kids you’ll ever meet. At that size his parents are very grateful his anger issues were resolved.

Recently Sheryl Miller, as part of her master’s thesis in Concordia University’s Department of Creative Arts Therapies, conducted a study on combat soldiers returning from Afghanistan and Iraq.

Art therapy was offered to soldiers with PTSD symptoms in an effort to externalize recurring feelings of fear, shame and anger. The participants were ages 28 to 56 and suffered from a variety of problems such as insomnia, nightmares, anxiety, depression, suicidal thoughts, isolation, chronic pain and interpersonal problems.

“Through art, participants were able to express positive feelings, externalize difficult emotions and gain insight into their PTSD symptoms,” Miller says. “Art-making fostered discussion and allowed veterans to show empathy for one another.”

Miller’s supervisor, Dr. Josee Leclerc, a professor in the Department of Creative Arts Therapies, says, “Art therapy is considered a mind-body intervention that can influence physiological and psychological symptoms. The experience of expressing oneself creatively can reawaken positive emotions and address symptoms of emotional numbing in individuals with PTSD.”

From a 6-year-old boy to a 56-year-old combat soldier, art was the vehicle for them to express their feelings nonverbally. It provided the bridge between themselves and their therapist to talk about the images and symbols conveyed through their art.

Through the application of right brain activity they tapped into their feelings and emotions, art provided a path to help them lower their stress levels, which in itself, promotes healing and calm.

The beauty of art therapy is that it’s in its infancy. Imagine the possibilities.

Yes, art does heal.

Susan Ann Darley is a creativity coach, writer and author. Through coaching and writing, she specializes in motivating people to use their talents and market their creative projects. She offers a free 30-minute coaching session. For more information, click here, e-mail her at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address) or call 805.845.3036.

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