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The Healing Potential of Art Therapy

by: Caitlin Kelly, LPC, LCPAT, ATR-BC, CEDS, Within Health
March 15, 2022
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The Healing Potential of Art Therapy

Art therapy is an integrative mental health field that is often used in the treatment of eating disorders. While traditional “talk therapy” treatment approaches typically involve sitting and talking about experiences and feelings, experiential therapies are not limited to verbal processing. Many individuals that struggle with eating disorders can find it difficult to use words to describe how they’re feeling, but are able to identify and express feelings through the kinesthetic experience of art making. (1)

Art therapy is hands-on and dynamic. Through art making, the creative process, and the relationship between the art therapist and the creator, individuals can uncover insights about themselves and their therapeutic goals. In fact, “aha” moments can occur with reflective distance to the art therapy session, which can be healing.

Exploring Art Therapy and How it Works
Facilitated by a professional art therapist, art therapy is an experiential therapy that uses a range of creative processes to explore thoughts, feelings, stressors, conflicts, and more. Art therapists are master’s level mental health clinicians that are trained in understanding how symbolism, metaphor, and imagery may provide insight into one’s emotional or psychological state. (2)

Art therapy offers a safe space for self-expression and a different way to communicate when an individual may not be able to access or articulate themselves verbally. This is because the kinesthetic experience of art making accesses different parts of the brain than verbal processing does. As such, art therapy works well to improve cognitive and sensorimotor functions. (1)

While it is true that art making alone can be therapeutic, in order to be considered true art therapy, there must be a professional art therapist present during the art making. Art therapy sessions can range from very direct interventions chosen by the art therapist to an open studio approach. Art making sessions may consist of a range of kinesthetic, sensory, perceptual, and symbolic therapeutic activities that engage the mind and body, for example:

  • Painting
  • Drawing
  • Collaging
  • Sculpting/3D art making
  • Mixed media creation
  • Paper making
  • Printmaking
  • Digital art making
  • Graffiti creation
  • Art journaling or creating an altered book
  • Collaborative art making
  • Dancing or mindful and joyful movement
  • Plus, so much more!

Experiential therapies, like art therapy, are not typically used as a stand-alone treatment for eating disorders. They are often part of a comprehensive treatment plan tailored to meet the individual’s needs.

Benefits of Art Therapy for Eating Disorders
Because of its non-verbal nature, art therapy can be beneficial for individuals who are hesitant to open up or find it difficult to access vulnerable emotions. Rather than starting by analyzing their feelings, getting creative can create a tactile experience which is helpful to explore emotions and experiences. Either during or after the art making, the art therapist supports the individual through discussing the process, which can hold insights through metaphor and imagery.

Benefits of art therapy may include: (2, 3 ,4)

  • Improved self-esteem and body image
  • Improved mind-body connection
  • Reduced use of defense mechanisms (including rationalization and intellectualization)
  • Increased ability to challenge rigidity and perfectionism
  • Increased therapeutic insight
  • Improved self-awareness
  • Strengthened pride and sense of autonomy
  • Improved emotional regulation skills
  • Improved distress tolerance skills
  • Increased interpersonal skills
  • Increased locus of control

One of the best things about art therapy is that anyone, regardless of ability, experience, or health, can participate in creative arts activities to promote healing and well-being. As such, one does not need to consider themselves an artist to do art therapy! This can be liberating and empowering for those who struggle with eating disorders as they work to build a healthy relationship with their body, food, and movement.

Sources

  1. American Art Therapy Association. (2017) Definition of Profession.
  2. Bucharová, M., Malá, A., Kantor, J., & Svobodová, Z. (2020). Arts Therapies Interventions and Their Outcomes in the Treatment of Eating Disorders: Scoping Review Protocol. Behavioral sciences (Basel, Switzerland), 10(12), 188.
  3. Griffin, C., Fenner, P., Landrof, K.B., and Crotchett, M. (2021). Effectiveness of Art Therapy for People with Eating Disorders: A Mixed Methods Systematic Review. The Arts in Psychotherapy 76.
  4. American Art Therapy Organization. (2012). Art Therapy’s Notable Impact on Eating Disorders and Healthy Eating.

Caitlin Kelly, LPC, LCPAT, ATR-BC, CEDS is a therapist at Within Health. Within Health provides virtual care for individuals suffering from every form of eating disorder, everywhere, in every body.

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