Western medicine is becoming increasingly aware of the importance of using the connection between the mind and body to encourage healing. Tapping into this interdependence between the two has created a kind of medicine called psychosomatic, holistic, or alternative medicine, which makes use of traditional philosophies like yoga or meditation and some emerging ones like art therapy to complement standard medical treatment. The idea is to provide a total healing experience rather than simply isolating a specific part of the body for therapy.
Art therapy started gaining acceptance in the 1940s when psychiatrists discovered that when a patient expressed themselves through art, it provided a good indication of their cognitive, developmental, and emotional state.
What is Art Therapy?
Under the supervision of a certified art therapist, the cancer patient makes use of different techniques like sculpting, painting, drawing, and collage as a vehicle for expressing their feelings about their current condition and the fears they have regarding their long-term outlook.
Art therapy sessions can be conducted on a one-on-one basis or in a group setting. During the session, the patient is guided in the creation of their piece by the art therapist. Sometimes the patients will be asked to create a free-form composition, and at other times they will be given instructions to create a piece that depicts a specific subject, such as what cancer looks like. The goal of these compositions is to have the patient give a visual expression to emotions that have remained submerged in their subconscious because they were too difficult to express verbally.
The patient does not have to be “good at art” to benefit from this kind of therapy, because it is not about technique. In fact, what the final composition looks like is not all important. The focus is on the experience of creating a means to express what they couldn’t express before. When the patient has completed their piece, the art therapist works with them in interpreting what their composition means.
Another less commonly used form of art therapy draws on photographs from the patient’s life, and under the guidance of the art therapist, interpreting the feelings that those photographs bring out in the patient.
Research Shows the Benefits of Art Therapy go Beyond Dealing with Emotions
In a study titled “Relieving Symptoms in Cancer: Innovative Use of Art Therapy”, published February 2006 in the Journal of Pain and Symptom Management, researchers found that art therapy is useful in controlling a number of symptoms associated with cancer.
The study included 50 cancer patients who were recruited from different oncology units at a large urban academic medical center over a 4 month period. The patients were all 18 years old or older, spoke English, and were physically able to take part in a one hour art therapy session. Each participant chose the type of art project they wanted to do.
When the study was completed, the researchers observed that the participants reported a decrease in:
They also experienced an increase in:
- Sense of well-being