Life, Stress, and Art Therapy

200542835-001The news media is filled with negative stories depicting distasteful people placed into powerful positions by election (i.e. politicians), or by talent, into the realms of sports or entertainment. Newspapers often read like cheap tabloids. We are bombarded by images online of politicians who are bilking taxpayers of billions of dollars and sports/entertainment heroes whose lives are out-of-control. We are lured to click onto seductive headlines by wiggling bodies vying for our attention.

Crime on the streets and in neighborhoods is rising at alarming rates. Promises of health care reform have not trickled down into ordinary people’s lives. In fact, insurance companies more than medical professionals are dictating the treatment people choose and with whom they trust their care. Insurance concerns are in a sense representative of the “lucky ones” who have health care, access to computers to research their treatment plans, and a place to call home. Many, many more people these days are living without access.

Higher education is saddling students with heavy debt, and forcing them to gamble that the economy will improve so that they can become employed upon graduation. People who are getting older and cannot find employment are returning to school as well. They also are gambling that a career change will provide them with the resources to take care of themselves in old age.

Life’s pressures seem to be increasing without sufficient places to vent or transform the stressors of life. Instead, we have had to become more knowledgeable, more vigilant to become our own advocates in just about every aspect of our lives, including managing the care of family members who are reliant on us. Who has the time for all of this? Sometimes it feels as though we simply cannot keep up the pace.

The good news is that in general people are resilient. They find ways to cope. They turn off the television, or become more selective of what they watch. They take a break from the news or shut off the internet, thereby putting limits on the influx of information. Others pay attention to the body and mind. Yoga, for example, is a healthy answer to managing stress. Controlled deep breathing can return a person to a calm state. Meditation has been proven to reduce stress by calming the mind.

Physical activity has been shown to lift mood and reduce depression just by vigorous activity for 20 minutes at least three times a week. Music and the arts can provide inspiration. Putting one’s attention toward something that they are creating is helpful. Singing, dancing, making something that did not exist before can provide satisfaction that can feel good.

But what if your stress cannot be managed by physical activity, meditation, arts and crafts or yoga? What if the anxiety that you experience now has been with you throughout most of your life? You may have noticed that it acts up when you are increasingly stressed. Perhaps stress causes you to withdraw and isolate.

If you have directly experienced physical or emotional violence or aggression or if you witnessed violence against someone else, your anxiety and/or depression may be the result of posttraumatic stress (PTSD). If your symptoms of anxiety and/or depression are triggered by the behaviors of people at your place of employment, in your community, or in your own family, you may be feeling that your feelings and emotions are out of control. You may need professional help to process your experiences.

For some people talking is not enough to change their anxiety or depression because traumatic experiences are not only stored in the mind. They are also stored in the body and are connected with emotion. Getting to trauma memory is sometimes better accessed through nonverbal methods combined with verbal processing.

Art psychotherapy engages a person in nonverbal processes such as dreams, art making, movement, sound, video, or mixed media with the goal of entering a client’s inner world where meaning was attached to events and where coping strategies have become fixed. Creative processes can help quiet the mind and open up new ways of looking at life experiences while allowing memories, feelings and emotions to surface. Engaging in creative processes can help identify and transform those feelings and emotions on a deep level.

Recently a highly anxious person diagnosed with personality disorder came in for her weekly session. It was very difficult for her to tolerate sitting across from me without stumbling over her words, wringing her hands, and talking nonstop. I offered her four differently colored nontoxic wads of clay during the session. She took a chunk of white clay but expressed an inability to make anything.

I took two wads of clay, yellow and blue, which I mixed into a third color: green. The client became engaged in mixing different colors of clay and producing a secondary pallet of colors. She then made an object that looked like a birdbath. She made this object as she continued to talk about her experiences of the past week. The clay seemed to calm her anxiety down enough to get to a place of mental coherence.

Later the birdbath became a symbol of the therapeutic process where she, “the bird” came to drink and play. While the image may seem innocuous to someone on the outside, for her, in therapy it represented a growing trust for her process. Art psychotherapy works with symbols and metaphor that often contain threads of emotion that are connected to deeper issues.

© Copyright 2010 by By Barbara 'Basia' Mosinski, LCAT, ATR-BC, MA, MFA, therapist in New York City, New York. All Rights Reserved. Permission to publish granted to GoodTherapy.org.

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by GoodTherapy.org. Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

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  • paul

    paul

    October 6th, 2010 at 10:34 PM

    there is just so much stress out there nowadays…not that it was all great before or that things were perfect but it seems like we have been corrupting and making our society only more and more meaner and cruel over the years…this has definitely taken a toll as can be seen by studying the figures for people with health problems,both physical and mental.

  • WoK WiT ChUnG

    WoK WiT ChUnG

    October 7th, 2010 at 4:11 AM

    I often listen to music to help calm my nerves. Its almost as if it magically lifts me out of depression and can even calm me down when i’m feeling really angry or in a tight situation. Whenever I have a presentation to make at my office I listen to music for a few mins just before the presentation and it often goes well.

  • Steph

    Steph

    October 7th, 2010 at 4:37 AM

    So what is the best way to find someone who is trained enough in this venue to make it a vital part of your treatment plan?

  • Basia Mosinski

    Basia Mosinski

    October 7th, 2010 at 7:13 PM

    Hi Steph,
    What I can tell you about finding ‘someone who is trained enough in this venue’ (art psychotherapy) to make it a vital part of treatment’ depends on a few criteria. First of all, the best way to find any therapist is word of mouth backed up by credentials verifying at least a masters level of education. Another way of course is a website such as Good Therapy. They are also a great resource to find an art therapist in your area. Clinicians are required to post their credentials and specialties, legal documents that verify that a clinician is who they say they are. In addition, each state has a local Art Therapy Association. The American Art Therapy Association website is also a great resource for understanding issues related to art therapy.

    The issue that I believe is underneath your question is trust. How do you trust that a therapist will relate to you the way you believe will be useful to you? Credentials, licenses, masters degrees certainly speak of determination on the part of the clinician but education alone does not make a psychotherapist. There is something else that has to be present for therapy to work. The therapeutic relationship is an essential component for therapy to work.

    What I do in my private practice is offer a free consultation before beginning individual therapy. By doing that, the potential client and I can be in the same room together or online via Skypes at the same time to get a sense of each others communication styles.

    I think it is fair to ask questions of an art psychotherapist as to how art is used in session. If you are someone who makes art you may want to bring your art into session. If you are not an “artmaker”, you may bring in some other personal expression such as dreams.

    Please feel free to contact me, if you have more questions or if you would like a free consultation, in person or via Skypes.

  • Cathy Malchiodi, PhD

    Cathy Malchiodi, PhD

    October 14th, 2010 at 11:33 AM

    Thanks for providing a good layperson’s explanation for consumers of art therapy!

  • Basia Mosinski

    Basia Mosinski

    October 20th, 2010 at 4:45 AM

    Hi Cathy,
    Thank you for your comment. I think it is very important for consumers to consider the similarities and differences between art psychotherapy and psychotherapy in treating an array of issues. My plan in this blog is to address different topics such a anger/rage, depression/anxiety, and trauma, as well as exploring a variety of art materials and their usage in session, including an art materials of personal interest: media arts.

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