Art Therapy For Chronic Pain

Even if you can’t draw a straight line, you can put colors and shapes on paper. And there’s something about letting colors and shapes appear as they will that helps you tap into your emotions, which are often buried beneath layers of subconscious mental defenses. Whether these colors and shapes remain vague or take recognizable form doesn’t matter. What counts is that the act of drawing, sculpting, or creating other forms of art can become a “mirror” that allows you to see inside yourself and recognize and release hidden emotions that may be contributing to your pain.

The U.S. military recently discovered the power of art therapy for treating PTSD patients and alleviating their symptoms of trauma. Walter Reed National Military Medical Center offers a structured art therapy program for war veterans who have experienced horrific combat events. Creating art helps these veterans unlock and release dark emotions they can’t express in words. Once their feelings (anxiety, fear, anger, or depression) are revealed on canvass or in a lump of clay, they become easier for the vets to discuss and process in a meaningful way.

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Although you can certainly do art projects on your own, powerful emotional healing can result from working with a trained art therapist, often in a group setting. Being in a group can energize your recovery, help you process emotions, and let you know that you are not alone in your struggle. Also, because others in the group may be further along in their treatment, you will see that it is possible to heal. Of course, when working in any group, it is important that you feel safe enough to share your feelings, and not fear that your art is being judged. At my center, patients create their art in a group setting, working with an art therapist who guides them through the process, suggests ideas for their art, and gently encourages them to discuss any issues that arise.

One of my favorite projects is The Mask, which addresses hidden disabilities. Each patient is given a mask that covers the face from chin to hairline, wraps around the sides of the face, and has eye holes. Then he is asked to paint the outside of the mask to represent the way he thinks others see him, while painting the inside as he sees himself. I’m often surprised at the differences between one side of the mask and the other. In one case, the outside of the mask was brightly colored, friendly, and smiling, while the inside looked like there were thirty or forty sharp spikes plunging into the patient’s head. This was the first time this stoic and uncomplaining patient revealed his inner pain—even to himself!

The Bridge is another project that brings up deep, often hidden emotions. For this project, the art therapist asks patients to think about what their lives look like now, then draw their current lives on one end of a large piece of paper using any colors, shapes, or images they like. Next, they are asked to think about the future and, on the other end of the paper, draw what they see themselves doing in the future, or what they would like to bring into their lives. The third part of the assignment is to draw some kind of bridge between the images at the two ends of the paper, and put themselves on that bridge.

As with The Mask, the differences between images of the present and the desired future are often huge and filled with meaning. But the bridges may be even more revealing. Some people draw big, strong bridges, with images of themselves striding confidently across. Others draw dilapidated wooden bridges, with so many missing planks that they have to leap over wide gaps to get across.

Still others draw bridges made of frayed ropes, with themselves dangling by the feet over shark-infested waters. When these pictures have been completed, the art therapist leads a discussion, asking each patient about that person on her bridge, what that person is thinking, what she needs to cross it successfully, and so on. (Notice that they talk about “that person,” rather than “you.” Creating this emotional distance makes it easier for many people to speak from the heart.)

Another art therapy project, and one that is very easy to do, is making a mandala, or circle. Since ancient times, the circle has been a symbol of wholeness and harmony, of the rhythms of nature and the life cycle. Since it has no beginning or end, no angles or hard edges, the circle has often been understood as representing the Creator’s perfection. Throughout the ages, many cultures and religions, including Native Americans, Hindus, and Buddhists, have used circles to draw spiritual energy, speed healing, and aid meditation.

When used for religious, cultural, or healing purposes, the circle is called a mandala, which is Sanskrit for “circle.” Carl Jung, the father of analytic psychology, encouraged his patients to draw mandalas to help them work through their outer defenses and get in touch with their core. Today, many healers use mandala drawing for the same purpose. Again, the point of drawing a mandala is not to create “great art.” Instead, it is used to tap into the emotions, especially those that are deeply buried.

At my center, patients create mandalas by drawing a circle, using pen or pencil, and then drawing images inside the circle. They work in a group setting, with the leader presenting a topic or theme to guide their drawing. The drawings inside their circles can be identifiable images, geometric patterns, or just random shapes. The mandala can be black and white, or any number of colors, as each patient desires. People are encouraged to draw what comes to mind instead of planning first; guided by the theme they are given, plus their own inner forces they are asked, simply, to draw, without judgment. If the drawing spills outside of the circle, that’s fine. Afterwards, the leader and group discuss various ideas and emotions that emerge from the drawings.

It sounds simple, but art therapy is a very powerful way to bring buried emotions to the surface so they can be addressed. The act of creating is itself a form of meditation, clearing the mind of distracting chatter, and helping quiet the storm For some, a breakthrough comes from examining what was drawn, then using it as a clue to guide treatment.

Even if you don’t want to paint, draw, sculpt, or engage in any other “hands on” form of art, you can gather pictures from magazines that trigger emotional responses or represent ways that you feel. No matter which form it takes, art therapy can help release bottled-up feelings by making an end-run around subconscious barriers erected to hold those terrible feelings at bay.

You can find an art therapist via the American Art Therapy Association at www.arttherapy.org

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