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What is Art Therapy?

Art therapy is an expressive form of therapy that promotes integrative processing of experiences stored in the mind and in the body by participating in the creative process. This is achieved through kinesthetic, sensory, perceptual, non-verbal, and symbolic means which promote mental, emotional, creative, and spiritual growth (American Art Therapy Association, 2017).

But what does that mean?

We can use art and the creative process to heal our mind and the emotions stored in our body simultaneously.

How does Art Therapy work?

Even in the earliest days of human life, people used symbols and drawings on cavern walls to tell stories and communicate with one another. Today, we still use art to document moments, communicate, and create new stories. Art making promotes cross hemisphere activity (meaning we engage both sides of our brain by using both sides of our body) to reconnect how we think and feel about our experiences. When we experience trauma, our brains can create blocks in our ability to put words to our experiences. Therefore, engaging in the creative process creates a language and gives a voice to those experiences that cannot be verbalized immediately. Not only can art therapy be used to put words to difficult experiences, but it can also improve sensory motor functions, strengthen sense of safety and empowerment, reinforce self-awareness, build emotional regulation and social skills, enhance self-esteem, and reconnect the mind and body.

What should I expect?

During an art therapy session, your therapist may do one of two options. The first option is to give a directive (or idea) based on your personal experiences and goals for therapy. Choosing a directive will provide a space to process your experiences, settle your mind, and identify, feel, and shift intensity of emotions. From time to time, your therapist may choose the media you use. However, oftentimes you get to decide what to use from a variety of materials. The second option is an open studio approach where the client leads the process. Open studio approaches allow the client to take more control of the media and how to use it. It also allows the session to become more mindfulness based, as well as enhance creative thinking, curiosity, adaptation, and problem solving skills. In either approach, the key is to trust the process, trust your therapist, and trust yourself.

Common Assumptions about Art Therapy

Art therapy is just for kids.

Art therapy is for everyone. Anyone at any age can do it! Art therapy is adaptable to work for a wide variety of mental, physical, behavioral, and social issues, including but not limited to grief and loss, mental illness, identity, self-esteem, transitions, abuse and violence, foster/adoption, sensorimotor skills, and learning disabilities.

I will have to do art every session.

Just because you choose to see an art therapist, does not mean you will do something with art every session. Art therapy can be used along with other therapy modalities, such as Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR), Dialectical Behavioral Therapy (DBT), Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT), or other therapy techniques. Combining modalities can, and will most likely occur.

It is just arts and crafts.

Art therapy is far from arts and crafts. Each idea and medium chosen for the session has meaning and intent. Sure, some days you may walk away with something you made “for fun,” but there is a purpose for even those times you create art without direction.

I am not an artist. I would have to have to be skilled in art to do it right?

In an art therapy session, the primary focus is not the technique. No one is grading your art. Having a degree in visual art or have any lengthy experience making art is not a requirement. Stick figures are perfectly okay! Art therapy is not just about the product – it is about the process. Your art therapist is trained to help and support you through that process. Part of the healing nature of art therapy is noticing how different mediums and ways of using them influence your thoughts, emotions, and actions. You will have the opportunity to work with a variety of mediums, such as drawing, collage, painting, sculpture, textiles, storytelling, and so much more. You can explore your world through art. You are an artist!


For more information on art therapy or to find an art therapist near you, please visit the American Art Therapy Association (https://arttherapy.org) or contact Clinical Counseling Associates of Kansas City to schedule an appointment with one of our art therapists.


By: Emma Bailey

LPC, RPT

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