Reader's Digest Asia Pacific
THE POWER OF THE PAINTBRUSH
Anxiety, depression and even addiction can be expressed and relieved via art therapy.
LAST YEAR I PAINTED PICTURES OF my panic attacks. I couldn’t find the words to describe what I felt, stuffed into a train like a squashed sardine. I’d travelled in peak hour for years, yet I’d never experienced terror like this. I didn’t understand why, suddenly, I was suffering and I was willing to try almost anything to make things better.
And so, after becoming frustrated by my inability to put words to what
I was feeling, I turned to art therapy. Art therapy is “a form of psychotherapy that uses art media as its primary mode of communication,” says Val Huet, CEO of the British Association of Art Therapists. It’s not only for children or arty types who are skilled in drawing and painting. Nor is it unnecessary for those who, like me, are used to expressing themselves with words. Quite the opposite, in fact.
“Art therapy isn’t just for people who can’t use language [in a sophisticated way], such as children who have to face upsetting things without adequate vocabulary to express it,” says Huet. “It also helps those who are too good with words and can use language as a fantastic defence. As soon as we learn to speak we learn to edit what we say, but we also edit our feelings to ourselves and get completely cut off from our true emotions.”
This is all too familiar to me. After all, my panic attacks had come as a surprise. Perhaps I’d been editing out my anxiety – ignoring my elevated stress levels for so long that only a cacophonous expression of distress could break through, arriving one day completely without warning.
Had I been cutting myself off from my need for more rest, relaxation and space? The imagery I created told me I had. It also helped me to feel better and, through a combination of breathing techniques and other therapies, I began to deal with my panic attacks.
Just the act of making art was therapeutic, particularly since I felt no expectation around how or what it should be. Within minutes of putting crayon or paint to paper, I’d feel myself unwind a little and become more focused. There was something about allowing myself to fully inhabit the fear that I’d just felt – without
Lucy’s art revealed emotions she didn’t even know she had
having to actually speak – that was both cathartic and calming.
What emerged was fairly extreme – some of it surprising even to me. These pictures said it all, acting a bit like messengers from myself and to myself, about why I’d arrived at such a heightened state of anxiety.
There was a person (me) on fire on the train, next to an identical figure who wasn’t alight . There was also a fraught and quickly sketched image of an oppressive orange spiral, and a more detailed portrait of the London Underground and the huge land mass above, pushing down onto the passengers’ heads.
These images had a sense of compression, urgency and stress, suggesting I was flammable, ready to explode. Yet it was when I shared them with a fully qualified art therapist – a benevolent ‘other’ who could hold, witness and acknowledge my feelings – that I began to feel a positive shift towards healing.
“Even when we’re in the depths of despair, we all want to be able to communicate and be understood,” says Huet. “That’s why the therapeutic relationship is key. In art therapy it’s OK to feel whatever you want – the therapist will contain it. If you want to screw up your image, you can.” FORTY- FIVE-YEAR- OLD FIREMAN Jack experienced a similar kind of transformation via art therapy after he responded to a gruesome road accident last year, where a man was trapped underneath a truck and died from his injuries.
For some time afterwards, Jack felt a constant sense of sadness that he was sure was connected to the incident and what he’d seen. He knew he felt stuck, but couldn’t put words to what he needed to move on. So instead of trying ( and failing) to talk about it, Jack decided to pick up a paintbrush.
“I remember feeling solemn and sad when I started the first image – and not sure that I was going to produce anything. But when the brush met the paint, it was less cognitive, more intuitive. I allowed the feeling to pour onto the page and see what marks it would make. Blackness started to consume the page and then green and red. I realised that the green was the equipment we’d used and the red was blood. What’s more, that blood was a figure.
“This picture isn’t beautiful,” continues Jack, “but it’s a really clear description of how I felt. Using art provided me with an opportunity to pour the feeling I had in me into
“There’s a safety in the childhood element of using colourful crayons and pencils and paper”
something else, and that something else then became the container for it – so I could walk away from it and leave it in a different place.
“I felt like I needed permission, that I couldn’t just take myself off and paint because it would somehow lose its validity. I think the fact that someone [a therapist] was there – to keep time, nod yes, and talk if I wanted – provided the appropriate structure and space that I could use so all this stuff could unfold.”
Jack’s second image was of the same event, but different. “The black was gone, the figure still lying on his back but now a blue colour with the blood coming from the head – not allconsuming. The sky has become red and yellow instead of black.”
Jack’s third painting is of a bridge over a river. “I think it’s about transition and transformation. On one side of the bridge the river is red and black,
and on the opposite side it’s blue and green. These three images told me I was moving on, making peace with the event and wishing the deceased a better existence elsewhere.”
IT’S NOT JUST FOR SUFFERERS of anxiety and one-off traumatic incidents. Longer- term issues such as addiction can also benefit greatly from art therapy. Alice Joiner is a 23- year- old fine arts student who developed an eating disorder and body dysmorphia in her teens.
“Both of my parents had been incredibly unwell before then,” she says. “I had a really broken heart and never understood why. I started to take photographs of myself because I felt so wrong in my own body, and so confused and traumatised.”
For Alice, taking the photographs marked the beginning of starting to understand herself better. “It was the
positions I would adopt, the look on my face. I learned things from them.” Her photography – along with the other art therapy work she did while in recovery – was about safely accessing something that felt quite literally too painful for words.
“Sometimes in talking therapy I didn’t want to talk about something in case I’d explode, have an anxiety attack,” Alice explains. “But there’s a safety in the childhood element of using colourful crayons and pencils and paper. I could draw how I was feeling instead.”
IN THIS MANNER, using the arts in therapy – be it music, poetry, dancing, painting, drawing or other artistic medium – can be magical.
“Neuroscience has been able to evidence that the emotions we experience aren’t just conjured up and thrown away,” says Huet, adding, “the significant ones become embedded.”
For Jack, Alice and me, using art therapy to access such embedded feelings has been invaluable.
“If sadness were a pool, I feel like art therapy enabled me to swim in it, experience it, and commit it onto the page, so it became available for me to talk about,” says Jack.
“Traumatic incidents can be used as an impetus for growth,” Jack continues, who credits his trauma with giving him a chance to learn how to be happy and content.
I couldn’t agree more.