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  • Alja Janc

Exploring the Healing Power of Art: A path to well-being and creativity

Throughout the ages, many cultures have used creativity and the arts to assist healing and to increase feelings of well-being. For instance, using pictures, stories, dances, and chants as a healing ritual has accompanied many cultures throughout history (Stuckey & Nobel, 2010). 

Even thinking back to when we were children, we would spend a lot of our time creating things. For instance, drawing or painting a picture, creating something from clay for a school project, etc. Those moments of artistic expression held a certain magic to be free and immersed in the process. Looking back, it is likely that we were not just creating art, perhaps we were also trying to communicate something that we were not able to verbalize at that time. 



However, nowadays it seems we may have set aside those creative endeavours, dismissing them as the domain of gifted artists. Nevertheless, art should not be taken so seriously and seen as limited only for those exceptionally talented. Embracing creativity is a journey for anyone willing to step beyond their comfort zone and reawaken their creative spark that we might have repressed as adults. 

Engaging in creative pursuits offers a gateway to relaxation, presence, and self-discovery. This could be done through organized art classes or simply doing it in the comfort of our home. When it comes to art, we do not need to take it too seriously. There is no competition, or streaming to create a “perfect” piece of art. The only purpose there is, is to get immersed in the creative process, find joy in it, and possibly learn and cultivate oneself individually and professionally.



1. What is art therapy?


Art therapy refers to various treatments, such as theatre therapy, dance movement psychotherapy, body psychotherapy, music therapy, and drawing, painting, and craft therapy (Priebe, Savill, & Wykes, 2016). It uses integrative techniques to captivate the soul, body and mind in ways verbal expression alone does not appear to (Gazit, Snir, & Regev, 2021). It helps to gain self-expression, self-awareness, learning and personal development, as well as contact, communication, and interaction with other people. Art therapy is commonly used for treating mental health disorders, such as anxiety, depression, psychosomatic illnesses, dementia, etc. However, it is also a therapeutic experience that can be incorporated into our daily routine, to boost up our wellbeing, encourage us to be more in-tune with ourselves, and it can also expand our social connections since it can take place in a group setting. 



Art therapy is oriented around body-mind model, which emphasizes body and mind as two interconnected entities. Two main components mentioned in art therapy are cognition and emotion, which are embedded in one’s sensory and motor experiences (Czamanski-Cohen, & Weihs, 2016). 


Here is a brief explanation of how the process of art therapy works


When creating art, we are expressing ourselves in a non-verbal way. A laboratory study on art therapy found increased emotional ratings and positive affect when expressing oneself through art, in comparison to verbal processing (Holmes et al., 2006). Non-verbal processing makes it easier for us to understand and become in- tune with our emotions. Access to our emotions is gained through a process that is interoceptive (relating to stimuli that arise within the body) and somatosensory (perceived through touch, pain, temperature). In other words, emotions are experienced before meaning is made (Smith & Lane, 2015). 


As a result of art therapy, people can: 


  • Interpret their feelings better.

  • Makes hard moments tolerable by not being in a survival system and instead feeling a sense of security and relaxation.

  • Less fear of engaging with emotional content

  • Increases emotional awareness and acceptance

  • Enhanced communication and expressiveness


Now that we understand what art therapy entails and one of its primary goals, I would like to share my personal experience with art therapy during a therapy session. 

During a period of uncertainty about my post-high school plans, I enrolled in Gestalt therapy that focused not only on future aspirations but also on self-discovery. With little knowledge about therapy, I entered without specific expectations. However, when the therapist suggested I draw something related to a topic I had brought up, I was initially skeptical about how drawing could aid in clarifying my thoughts.


Feeling the pressure to create a visually appealing and effortful drawing, I struggled to connect with my deeper thoughts and emotions. Choosing to let go of the pressure, I started drawing without thinking about it. Surprisingly, during the analysis of the drawing with my therapist, I found that I could express myself more effectively, and the drawing began to make sense. 


Although my engagement with art therapy was brief and limited to that time, the experience was unexpectedly enlightening. It highlighted how something as simple as drawing could unveil aspects of ourselves that were challenging to communicate verbally.



Art therapy is not only limited to drawing or expressive and emotional responses. Creative arts include also dance, theatre, creative writing, and museums. Moreover, all these activities can also be responsible for (Fancourt & Finn, 2019):


  • Enhanced self-efficacy.

  • Lower stress hormone response

  • Enhanced immune function and higher cardiovascular reactivity.

  • Reduced loneliness and isolation

  • Enhanced social support

  • Improved social behaviours

  • Skills development



2. How can art help boost up our professional and daily life?


The term “art therapy” may not necessarily imply a formal therapeutic intervention.

Rather, it encompasses a versatile activity that can seamlessly integrate into diverse professional environments. Beyond its therapeutic connotations, engaging in art has the capacity to enhance creativity and productivity, proving beneficial for our careers. The incorporation of art classes within workplaces is increasingly recognized as a valuable recommendation, reflecting a broader acknowledgment of the positive impact of artistic expression on professional development.



Let’s look at the different ways art can be applied into our professional lives:


  1. Art classes at a workplace have positive effects on employee’s well-being by enhancing creativity, social-wellbeing, and as a result inspire them to innovate and find new approaches to their work. A Swedish study also reported enhanced mental well-being, for instance less emotional exhaustion and depressive symptoms, among employees working in places where art activities were offered (Berthoin, 2013). A Lithuanian study found similar results among nursing staff where painting activities helped them improve their vitality and energy levels (Berthoin, & Strauß, 2016).

  2. Taking part in art activities in our leisure time is equally beneficial as art classes at our workplace. A Swedish study showed that employees from a medical public health sector went to the movies, art exhibitions or sang in a choir once per week, they self-reported improvements in their physical health, their social functioning, and vitality (Horn, & Vapalahti, 2017).


These two examples indicate that art therapy can be incorporated into various settings, proving that it is not only an accessible but also a cost-effective activity that can be customized to individual preferences. Often, during work-related pressures or when we are striving to generate a new business idea, we may mistakenly believe that being glued to our desks is the quickest route to success. This mindset can lead us to neglect social gatherings or limit time for our hobbies, driven by a fear of feeling guilty for not working constantly. 


However, the reality is that taking a break and engaging in activities that bring us joy and relaxation can be the key to overcoming mental fatigue and work overload. Rather than viewing these pursuits merely as “free time activates”, it is valuable to recognize them as integral components of our psychological and physical well-being. Moreover, these moments of leisure contribute significantly to enhancing creativity, fostering innovation, and refining problem-solving techniques. 


In essence, the path to productivity is not always a linear march behind a desk; sometimes, it is the diversions and leisurely pursuits that pave the way for a clearer mind and a more innovative approach to challenges. Embracing this perspective can lead to a more balanced and fulfilling life, where creativity thrives alongside productivity.



3. List of art exercises

The following list of art exercises can be done on our own, or to make it even more fun and make it a more sociable experience, it is also a good way of doing it in a group.


The list is divided into different sections depending on what we wish to work on:


Helpful exercises for emotions like anger and sadness:

  • Line therapy = simple and most basic aspect of art, but it can also contain a lot of emotion. Use a simple line art to demonstrate visually how you are feeling.

  • Paint a mountain and a valley = the mountain can represent a time where you were happy, the valley, when you were sad. Add elements that reflect specific events as well.

  • Draw or paint your emotions = In this exercise you will focus entirely on painting what you are feeling


These exercises are a good way to relax and feel a little bit more laid back:

  • Finger paint = grab a piece of paper and have some fun whilst getting your hands messy

  • Make a mandala = Whether you use the traditional sand or draw one on your own, this meditative symbol can easily help you to loosen up.

  • Only use colours that calm you down = Create a drawing or a painting using only colours that you find calming.


The following exercises are meant to reflect on your own personal happiness:

  • Collage your vision of a perfect day = think about what constitutes a perfect day to you and collage it. 

  • Build a “home” = what does home mean to you? This activity will have you create a safe, warm place that feels like home to you.

  • Make a prayer flag = Send your prayers for yourself or those around you out into the universe with this project


These exercises are meant to promote motivation and be more productive at your work. You can either do them on your own or with your colleagues at work:

  • Chat and doodle for 10 minutes prior meetings: it’s proven that doodling has many benefits and helps to focus on your mind.

  • Create a motivational collage: collage a vision board. Fill it with images you find motivating.

  • Rainbow art therapy ideas: When doing this, apply each strip with a partner in turn. The exercise develops the emotional world, communication skills.





References:

  • Berthoin Antal, A. 2013: Seeking values: Artistic interventions in organizations as potential cultural sources of values-ad- ded. In Baecker, D. & Priddat, B. P. (eds.): Oekonomie der Werte – Economics of Values. Marburg: Metropolis-Verlag. 

  • Berthoin Antal, A. & Strauß, A. 2016: Multistakeholder perspec- tives on searching for evidence of values-added in artistic interventions in organizations. In Johansson Sköldberg, U., Woodilla, J. & Berthoin Antal, A. (eds.): Artistic Inter- ventions in Organizations: Research, Theory and Practice. Oxford: Routledge, 37–59. 

  • Czmanski-Cohen, & Weihs, L.K. (2016). The bodymind model: A platform for studying the mechanisms of chage induced by art therapy. The Arts in Psychotherapy, 51, 63-71.

  • Fancourt, D., & Finn, S. (2019). Health Evidence Network Synthesis Report 67. What Is the Evidence on the Role of the Arts in Improving Health and Well-Being? A Scoping Review. World Health Organization. https://apps.who.int/iris/bitstream/handle/10665/329834/9789289054553-eng.pdf 

  • Gazit I., Snir S., & Regev, D. (2021). Relationships between the therapeutic alliance and reactions to artistic experience with art materials in an art therapy simulation. Front Psychol, 12

  • Holmes, E. A., Mathews, A., Dalgleish, T., & Mackintosh, B. (2006). Positive interpretation training: Effects of mental imagery versus verbal training on positive mood. Behavior Therapy, 37(3), 237–247. http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j. beth.2006.02.002 

  • Horn, H. & Vapalahti, K. (eds.) 2017: Taidetta työn kehittämi- seen. Kaakkois-Suomen ammattikorkeakoulu, Mikkeli. 

  • Priebe S., Savill M.,Wykes T., et al. (2016). Clinical effectiveness and cost-effectiveness of body psychotherapy in the treatment of negative symptoms of schizophrenia: a multicentre randomised controlled trial. Health Technol Assess, 20, 1-100.

  • Smith, R., & Lane, R. D. (2015). The neural basis of one’s own conscious and unconscious emotional states. Neuroscience & Biobehavioral Reviews, 57, 1–29. 

  • Stuckey, H. L., & Nobel, J. (2010). The Connection between Art, Healing, and Public Health: A Review of Current Literature. American Journal of Public Health, 100, 254-263. https://doi.org/10.2105/AJPH.2008.156497






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