What is Art Therapy?

Art therapy is a therapeutic approach that uses the creative process of art making to improve and enhance the mental and emotional well-being of clients. It is based on the understanding that the creative process used in artistic self-expression helps people to resolve conflicts and problems, develop interpersonal skills, manage behavior, reduce stress, increase self-esteem and self-awareness and achieve insight.

“During Art Therapy, with the light streaming in the window and surrounded by the vibrant colors of paints, I was completely absorbed in the project at hand”

Why is Art Therapy used?

Clients struggling with an Eating Disorder are often blocked from their feelings, their emotions and the deeply rooted issues that are at the core of the Eating Disorder thoughts. Art therapy is especially effective at helping clients access these blocked emotions. Art therapy is effective because it accesses a different region of the brain than talk therapy.

Art Therapy at Canopy Cove

At Canopy Cove Eating Disorder Residential Treatment Center, adult and adolescent clients participate in separate art sessions. Clients engage in two types of art therapy: a directed approach and an open studio process. In directed art therapy sessions, the art therapist provides clients with a theme and general vision for the project and then provides clear instructions. The art therapist encourages clients to introduce their own interpretive views to create a unique version of the project. The session is focused on exploring specific issues the participants are currently processing or may be focused on dealing with a topic that the therapist feels would provide an opportunity for valuable insights and growth for the clients. In the open studio sessions, a discussion will serve as a starting point for free expression. Clients may be asked, “Using any materials in the room, depict a time that you recall experiencing a specific emotion”. Or, “Depict how this specific emotion manifests in your life”. Participants are then encouraged to use any form of art they prefer to create a visual expression. Examples of potential topics may include, obsessive compulsive tendencies, shame, perfectionism, self-identity, control, guilt, anger, etc. By then reflecting on what has been created, the client is often able to access insights that have previously been unavailable.

“Art Therapy was the first time I felt joy in a long time ”

Does someone have to be “good at art” to participate?

Everyone can participate in Art Therapy. Clients do not need past artistic experience nor do they need to possess a natural aptitude to benefit from this type of therapy.  Clients are encouraged to focus on the inner journey, not the end result. The emphasis of the art-making is in the process of doing and learning, not on creating a masterpiece. Clients are often surprised at the insights that emerge and the awareness they are able to cultivate within the creative process.

“I lost myself in the art project and discovered so much about myself at the same time”

The Science-Understanding why art therapy is effective

Through research, Art Therapy has been shown to improve patients’ overall health outcomes, quality of life and treatment compliance. Although research based evidence was not available 28 years ago when Canopy Cove first begin offering art therapy to Eating Disorder clients, fortunately, now the research detailing the benefits is both abundant and conclusive. American Art Therapy Association Research Committee provides a prolific Art Therapy Outcome Bibliography supporting the benefits of art therapy in the residential setting. In addition, the State of the Field, a compilation of knowledge research written by experts in the field, created the report: Arts in Healthcare 2009 to document what is known about art and art therapy in health settings. The report details the many benefits of art therapy in health care as evidenced by a variety of research studies. These benefits include physical, mental, and emotional gains in patient healing and recovery. Furthermore, recent data suggests that art therapy programs may result in shorter hospital stay, less need for medication, and fewer complications for patients.

A research article from 2004, “Art Therapy and the Brain: An Attempt to Understand the Underlying Processes of Art Expression in Therapy”, showed the benefits of Art Therapy are derived, at a basic level, through sensory stimulation (Lusebrink, 2004). Lusebrink explored the underlying processes involved in art expression and found that engaging in art therapy activates different brain regions. Art expression stimulates the brain’s tactile-haptic, visual sensory, and perceptual channels; processing then occurs through cognitive and verbal channels (Lusebrink, 2004). Various aspects of information processing are also involved in this complex interplay, as well as spatial placement and symbolic memory (Lusebrink, 2004).

“Transferring my thoughts and fears into a physical form was an important step in my recovery process”

What are the benefits of Art Therapy for clients with Eating Disorders?

The benefits of Art Therapy for clients with Eating Disorders are numerous.

  • Art Therapy can afford the opportunity for clarity and freedom of thought. During Art Therapy, clients often become highly focused and fully engaged on the project at hand and experience a state often referred to as “flow”. In positive psychology, flow is described as the mental state in which a person performing an activity is fully immersed in a feeling of energized focus, full involvement, and enjoyment in the process of the activity. In essence, flow is characterized by complete absorption in what one does and loses a sense of space and time.

In this state, many clients are freed from the typically persistent Eating Disorder thoughts and more able to experience clarity and freedom of thought.

  • Art Therapy facilitates self-exploration and self-understanding. As part of this creative therapeutic process, thoughts and feelings can be expressed that would otherwise be difficult to acknowledge and articulate.
  • Art Therapy generates positive feelings and feeling of accomplishment. The physical act of creating something new can be highly rewarding. Clients participating in art therapy consistently share that the creative therapeutic process, has elicited feelings of accomplishment, pride, joy, acceptance, peace and an improved self-understanding.
  • In addition, Art Therapy at Canopy Cove is also integrated into Equine Therapy which incorporates horses.

Because of the important role Art Therapy plays in Eating Disorder clients’ recovery, it offered at all three levels of care, Residential, Partial Hospitalization, and the Intensive Outpatient program.

Interested in pursuing a career as an Art Therapist? Click here to learn more about the educational requirements and to review a job description.