By Annie Kaja Reed
Stress is a common factor that exacerbates all of the mental disorders. Learning ways to physically, emotionally, and mentally cope with and reframe stress is a common element to the work we as therapists do. Let’s make sure that art making is in the stress resiliency tool box! Here’s why:
Art therapy has been increasingly shown to be an evidence-based intervention in the treatment of and recovery from stress and trauma disorders and you don’t need a formally trained art therapist to help your clients use art making for healing. It can be as simple as a making a circle. Just picking a color, holding a crayon or oil pastel, and moving it across any kind of surface in a circular fashion switches on relaxation in the body and mind. Recently in our art therapy group at The Refuge – A Healing Place, we explored circle making as a creative community. One of our young addicts pronounced the idea as “very avant-garde” and soon the circle art making was at hand.
As leader of this creative community, it is always very exciting to be a part of the building of the creative energy, seeing it sweep across the room, and watching the effects, on our clients and myself, of being in that timeless art flow. As part of the model that I use in art therapy at The Refuge, everyone that is in the art studio creates art, there are no observers and sometimes this is hard, especially for the professionals. Yesterday, a case manager came into the art studio to get a client and we called out that she had to make a circle. “I have no time” she answered, “I know…what color do you like” I replied as I shoved the box of oil pastels close to her right hand and slid a piece of paper under her. “Well, if I did make one, it would be a circle of light…” she stalled. “What color? Show us!” the clients and I encouraged her. In seconds she was moving a yellow oil pastel across the paper and took a deep breath. A few more seconds and her shoulders dropped, she picked up a pale green oil pastel and a slight smile curved her mouth. “Yay, she’s got it” reflected one of the clients. After ten minutes of coloring and moving, our case manager looked around and smiled as everyone cheered and said “I feel so much better! I’m coming in next week.”
We all have art making stories – but what does the research say? In a recent scientific study on stress, artistic tasks outperformed nonartistic tasks on every measure for the reduction of stress as measured by two different stress scales (Abbott, Shanahan, Neufield, 2013). Specifically, they found that active art making reduced stress at a significantly greater amount compared to nonartistic cognitive approaches (18.3% for active art task vs. 7.9% for active nonartistic task).
You can easily implement this into your practice; having a well-placed box of art making media , paper in your office, and coloring books with an open invitation to scribble is all it takes. A circle a day is a great way for you to practice self-care too. Art is the circle of life.
Abbott, K., Shanahan, M., Neufield, R. (2014). Artistic tasks outperform nonartistic tasks for stress reduction. Art Therapy: Journal of the American Art Therapy Association, 30, 71–78. doi:10.1080/07421656.2013.787214