The healing power of art therapy
One reader shares how art therapy helped her recover from an eating disorder.
Comfortably cocooned in the safe space of my therapist’s office, aromatherapy scents and soft lights helped me drop into the session. We were discussing experiences from my childhood when my therapist confronted me with a confusing question.
“Can you describe how emotions of loneliness feel in your body?”
I was bewildered. She continued, “Does the sensation of loneliness feel hard, sharp; do you feel it one area of your body or in several places?”
I had never thought of emotions as physical sensations. To me, they had only ever been abstract. It had not occurred to me that emotions run deeper than just a thought and state of mind.
I was guided to a table and chair and presented with a range of artistic mediums from charcoal to paint. I sat, nervously anticipating what was to come.
I came to therapy after years of struggling with anxiety, negative body image and an eating disorder.
I woke each morning with a gripping knot of anxiety in my stomach. Lacking confidence in my appearance, I would carefully scrutinise my reflection. Days consisted of calculating calories, aiming to eat less than I did the day before. I felt irritable, tired and lost.
I employed every self-help tool I could think of — daily journaling, positive self-talk and meditation — but the anxiety continued. I needed professional help.
In true millennial style, I discovered my therapist through Instagram. Although I was aware of her art therapist status, I assumed our interactions would be mostly talk-based. I had a cynical view of art therapy. How would drawing pictures help me recover from an eating disorder?
But, as I sat at the desk looking at a blank piece of paper, my therapist asked me to select a medium to draw my younger self. Self-conscious, nervous and attempting to prevent ridicule, I repeatedly told her I was not creative. She reassured me; the goal was not perfection.
Next, I was asked to write words to describe the thoughts and emotions of my younger self. Sadness began to build inside me as I wrote, “lonely, sad, angry, unlovable, not enough.”
I was then asked to draw my adult self. The two drawings were separated by an unconscious gap. My therapist asked me to write what my younger self needed. I wrote, “to feel enough, loved, safe, calm, warm.” The emotions washed over me as the therapist suggested connecting the two images. As tears dropped onto the page, I drew my adult self, holding hands with my younger self. I sobbed. It was the first time I felt a connection to emotions buried deep within me for far too long.
In a later session, we explored where I held tension in my body. I was asked to draw the outline of my torso. Intuitively, I selected a light blue watercolour. Next, I drew my spine, hips, stomach and chest. A strong oil pastel line depicted my spine, soft orange watercolour filled my lower abdomen; heavy crosshatched charcoal lines created my hips; opaque green circles sculpted my upper abdomen and red lines filled my chest.
Taking a step back, I could see my chest, hips and stomach were darker, heavier and yet my inner organs were light in comparison. My physical body was still holding onto years of anxiety and eating disorder behaviours. I was visibly holding tension in my hips and stomach to protect my inner organs: my inner self.
I recall another session where I was asked to draw a circle to represent my life and to illustrate my anxiety within that circle. I drew a small black dot. It was empowering to see how small my anxiety was compared to the rest of my life. It allowed me to accept that anxiety is part of my life but does not control my life.
Art therapy helped me explore difficult emotions and past trauma to cultivate a greater sense of self-awareness and shone a light on why I turned to harmful coping mechanisms. The combination of art and talking therapy has helped me engage with my intuition, ignited my creativity and unlocked previous memories that were preventing me from living a life free from anxiety and negative self-image.
If you feel unsure that art therapy is right for you, my advice would be to give it a try. We all learn differently, so it makes sense we all heal differently.
Dispelling myths of art therapy
Myth: You need to be good at art in order to engage in art therapy.
Fact: The process is much more important than the end result. The goal is to explore emotional undertones from what we create, to foster greater awareness of our emotions.
Myth: I can’t draw on demand; I need time to plan.
Fact: The aim is to connect with your intuition and see what comes up for you in that moment. True discovery comes from the unplanned.
Myth: I don’t think art therapy would help uncover anything I don’t already know.
Fact: You will be surprised. Connecting with the right side of our brain allows us to unlock images of emotions and events that have been long forgotten.
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