July 14, 2020

Art Heals: Biology behind Art Therapy

At a time of extra stress and isolation for all of us due to the pandemic, we are pleased to present inspiration anyone can apply at home in our first From the Clinician contribution from Art Therapist, Jeanette Bullock. Jeanette outlines how art therapy works in practice, and in the brain, and in this piece connects the suicide prevention and creative legacy aspects of our mission. Go find some chalk, clay, or paints in that craft drawer, create away, and foster some new brain connections to calm and reframe your outlook. Creativity counts!


From the Clinician: 

Creating to Heal: How Art Therapy Supports the Healing Process

by Jeanette Bullock, ATR, MS

Mental Health treatment, like all wellness and medical fields, has many different approaches, styles and theories. These approaches often overlap and influence one another. They also all rely on a key factor: communication. This communication between therapist and client often happens during a structured session, but may, at times, take place briefly before or after the session as well. How the client communicates with the therapist is unique to each individual and influenced by several different factors. The communication styles that occur within sessions are often classified as either verbal or non-verbal.

One of the reasons I was drawn to the field of Art Therapy is that it allows for clients to communicate with themselves and the therapist using both styles of communication. This, in turn, expands the dialogue that occurs. I feel the additional aspect of relying on and understanding non-verbal communication allows for a more holistic view of each client’s needs.

One of the theorists whose concepts I employ is Carl Rogers, traditionally recognized as a humanistic theorist in the field of psychology. Rogers always supported the notion that there is a social need for creativity as well as communication (Rogers, N, 2012). He felt each individual had a desire to express themselves in their own unique manner. Over the past several years, I have worked with a variety of populations as an Art Therapist and have been witness to this creative process. During this time, my own view of “creative expression” has expanded immensely as each client found their comfort in exploring non-verbal expressions in a medium unique to them.

It is not a new idea that art can be used “as therapy.” Outside of theorists and treatment modalities, artists have been silently exploring this concept for years – consciously and unconsciously. But how exactly does Art Therapy help the healing process?

Art and the Brain

The American Art Therapy Association formally defines art therapy as ‘an integrative mental health and human services profession that enhances the lives of individuals, families, and communities using art making, the creative process/theory, applied psychological theory, and human development within a psychotherapeutic relationship.’ The creative expression used during an Art Therapy session allows the client to explore their cognitive, emotional, physiological, and behavioral needs by non-verbally accessing components of their brain that otherwise may be difficult to access. To simplify, the art-making that occurs in sessions helps the creator process their needs visually, allowing those needs to later be processed verbally.

“Find the Light” by Jeanette Bullock
Water color and Micron on Canvas. Inspired by finding the calm in the midst of a stressful pandemic.

In order to understand exactly how this process works, it is helpful to examine the evidence from a neurological view point. Dr. Siegel (2016) spent extensive time studying art and the brain. He found that art-making activates and strengthens neurons which creates structural changes in our brain, and this ability to change is known as neuroplasticity. Neuroplasticity allows for changes to occur as synaptic pruning takes place, reducing neural connections that are no longer useful while strengthening those that are useful. Applying this theory clinically, a client recovering from trauma would find this process helpful in reducing symptoms of that trauma by creating art in a safe environment (in session), allowing for new neural connections to replace previously disruptive connections formed due to the experienced trauma.

Furthermore, as a client creates and processes their creation, they are activating both hemispheres of the brain by physically engaging with the piece and verbally processing it after. The combination of these two communication styles allows for neural integration, problem solving, and stress reduction (Bednash, 2016). This also touches upon the idea that art making is not only visual, but also a physical engagement. Returning to the clinical example above, creating art allows the client to engage with their body (that physically experienced the trauma) in a new and positive way – creating new, positive connections for their mind and body. While this only touches upon one way art and the brain work together, it gives us an idea of how a process like this would be beneficial during therapy.

Clinical Experiences 

Once one understands the importance and power art making has in the healing process, it is no surprise that there is an entire field dedicated to working with art as a therapeutic tool. I am currently a Registered Art Therapist, having received my Masters degree from Florida State in Art Therapy. I currently work with adolescents with a range of diagnoses and goals, but have worked with many different populations and needs over the past several years. I have noticed that younger clients, in particular, may struggle to communicate verbally the feelings they are experiencing as their brains are still developing and they are still learning the words to express these feelings.

Once art making has been introduced in a session, even clients who may feel hesitant to engage can find an outlet for their emotions. Focus on creation expands the dialogue non-verbally, which allows for a more holistic understanding of the client’s needs. Mediums used in my sessions have included, but are not limited to, painting, drawing, clay, sculpting, mask making, journaling, and calligraphy. I encourage clients to use their entire bodies while creating, and often will co-create with the client to encourage an artistic and safe atmosphere free of judgment. It is crucial that the client feels welcome in the therapeutic environment in order for the creative process and the healing to occur. As Carl Rogers explained, environments which foster creativity ensure the client feels accepted unconditionally, often achieved through empathy from the therapist (Rogers, N, 2012). I also often incorporate walking or minor physical activity like breath work, yoga poses, and games into the sessions if a client seems uncomfortable, in order to help them become more aware of their body and its needs.

Reflecting on my own experiences with Art Therapy, the neurological connections occurring during the art directives, and the idea that both communication styles are used in an Art Therapy session, I feel that the creative process has unlimited potential in assisting clients in their self- discovery and path to healing. I recognize that many clients may feel hesitant to engage in the creative process as it may not feel accessible to them for a variety of reasons. Ensuring that the focus is on the art process rather than the product, and remaining open minded to any type of material for creation purposes, is crucial in helping clients explore what is a very natural form of expression.

I would encourage anyone that is interested in exploring their non-verbal communication styles at home to allow the creative process to guide you without judgment. During these difficult times, art is a wonderful outlet to explore your needs, emotions and encourage a calm environment at home. To find out more information about Art Therapy, potential Art Directives at home or to access an Art Therapist in your area, please visit the American Art Therapy Association’s website. 

Jeanette Bullock, ATR, MS, is an Art Therapist currently working with the Aspen Hope Center in and around Aspen, CO. The Hope Center provides an array of services designed to help community members navigate local Mental Health systems and receive necessary supports and operates a 24/7 Crisis Line: 970-925-5858.