Getting Your Hands Dirty: Art Therapy and Recovery
Imagine a man who is not comfortable expressing himself verbally.
The traditional approach of group meetings or talking-based counseling doesn’t work well for him. However, when given a paintbrush, the man expresses his pain from years of alcohol addiction and hope for the future through colors, shapes, and images. Because addiction can be brought on by many things—childhood trauma, PTSD, depression—it makes sense that what works for one person in therapy might not work for another. And that’s where visual art therapy can help.
What is visual art therapy?
Art therapy is an integrative mental health approach that uses psychological approaches alongside visual art techniques. Art therapy can be effective in areas where traditional psychotherapy has not been successful. There are licensed art therapists, and many counselors and therapists use art therapy techniques in group or individual settings. But art can be practiced in a non-official environment as well.
To learn more about art therapy, how to become an art therapist, or to find a licensed art therapist, visit the American Art Therapy Association.
Benefits of art therapy in recovery include:
- Provides artistic self-expression that can encourage a sense of self and pride in an identity.
- Helps resolve conflict by working through past issues through the artwork. For example, a person can draw a picture of their past life on drugs as a way to accept the past and move on from the old life.
- Helps reduce stress. Tactile interactions with objects such as clay or paint can be relaxing.
- Teaches how to set a goal and work towards it. There’s nothing quite as rewarding as starting an art project and seeing the final product.
- Can give a sense of control. One of the hardest aspects of recovery is that everything can feel out of control—cravings, emotions, physical withdrawal, circumstances. But a piece of clay can be molded any way you want. A white canvas is yours to do with as you choose.
- Unlike other forms of therapy, visual art gives a tangible product. This can be reassuring in recovery when so much of the battle for sobriety is taking place in the mind and heart, which are not concrete. Sometimes in recovery, success can feel difficult to measure, which can be discouraging. But if you knit a scarf or mold a bowl, you can touch the final product and feel proud in a job well-done.
The wonderful part of art therapy is that there are so many kinds of art.
Painting, sculpting, ceramics, knitting, wood working, screen printing, jewelry making, and graphic design are just some of forms of art therapy. Basically, if you can make something, it can have therapeutic effects.
Art can express the ugly parts of life.
If you need to draw the face of a lost loved one or paint an abstract painting of a painful memory, art can be an outlet to express grief, remorse, sadness, anger, or other bottled-up emotions.
Or art can bring something beautiful to the world.
Or if you’re in recovery and you’re exhausted by focusing on all the hard parts of life, you can sketch the blossoming tree, or sculpt a symmetrical vase, or sew a pretty dress. Art can be an oasis from hard parts of life. There’s no right way to express yourself through art therapy.
Four simple activities to incorporate art therapy into your own life:
- Painting. If you’re a beginner, do a web search to see if there are local painting classes available. If the white canvas intimidates you, start with a coloring book. You don’t have to make a masterpiece right away. Start by enjoying yourself.
- Go outside and sketch. The wonderful part about drawing is that all it takes is a pencil and paper. The outdoors are a great way to feel artistically inspired. Either go for a walk or pick a place to sit and draw your surroundings. A basic number two pencil is fine, but if you’re more adventurous, feel free to explore different mediums such as charcoal, markers, colored pencils, or oil pastels.
- Make a craft with your child or friend. This has the added bonus of being both art therapy and an opportunity to spend quality time with a loved one. Make paper snowflakes with your child. Or invite a friend over to make jewelry. Or help your neighbor with the cabinet he’s making.
- Pottery. There’s something soothing about the mushiness of clay and the whirl of a pottery wheel. If you can’t afford access to a wheel and a kiln, sculpting clay or play dough with your hands is fun, too. Or make slime with this easy recipe.
Remember, like everything in life, learning a new skill takes time. Don’t be hard on yourself if your first, or second, or tenth ceramic bowl is lopsided. Don’t feel discouraged by how long it takes you to crochet a scarf. You’ll learn your craft eventually and then you’ll feel proud because you persisted.
At Victory Addiction Recovery Center, the physicians and licensed counselors believe in a holistic approach to recovery—meaning that they treat the mind as well as the body. If you or someone you know might struggle with addiction and would benefit from a holistic approach to recovery, contact Victory Addiction Recovery Center.
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