“Art therapy? I do that all the time! I have soooooo many colouring books…” Popular media has made “art therapy” a buzzword. And there is some basis in truth to art-making in terms of a general therapeutic activity. Recent studies have shown an increase in relaxation and a decrease in “fight or flight” responses when many individuals have been colouring, drawing or painting. This is believed to be because of signals sent to the brain when sensory materials are manipulated (especially with soothing colours or textures), telling us that we’re not in any danger. The pleasure circuit in the brain will eventually become activated, causing us to feel really good while “in the zone”.
However, as with most things mainstream and pop culture, that’s only half the story. Colouring or drawing does not work as a relaxation technique for everyone. In fact, art-making, especially if done alone, may have the opposite effect. Your anxiety and stress levels can increase for a number of reasons, including:
You’re not familiar with the materials used, or the techniques used
The colouring page seems too complicated
Fear of judgement and ridicule outweigh the relaxation factor
Pre-existing chronic mental health issues
New medications and / or illnesses (even the common cold)
Comparisons between yourself and others
You don’t feel in control of the situation
“One size does NOT fit all” when it comes to art-making for relaxation. In fact, as a therapist, there’s only one general rule that I can give you when it comes to doing anything for relaxation – if you don’t find it relaxing, it’s not working for you :)
Even though increasing relaxation can be seen as a kind of therapeutic response, creative expression by a client on his own is not a guaranteed “cure all”. Like other forms of therapy, a therapist-client dialog is crucial for this kind of intervention to work. The therapist is there to provide a safe, confidential environment and unconditional support for the client. The therapist acts as the client’s guide, asking carefully chosen, non-influential questions as the client talks about personal thoughts, feelings and experiences that artwork creation generates. In the expressive therapies especially, art therapist Cathy Malchiodi refers to an empathetic “right brain to right brain” dynamic which can access early pre-verbal states before words were dominant. This allows the client to repair and replace old relational patterns with healthier, more productive interactions. In other words, the client-therapist relationship produces feelings of “you get me” as well as “I’m important and authentic, no matter what” before any real verbal discussion has taken place.
Art therapists are trained in both art and psychology, and as such, are experts on the psychological impact of various art materials. We use this knowledge of art, psychology and materials to design sessions for the client to best promote positive mental health and well being. The therapist’s role is to help you feel safe, grounded and in control as you process personal thoughts, feelings and experiences. It’s this level of support that colouring solo just can’t provide.