Week 7:
Why Art is an Important Therapeutic Tool

Karin L. Bostrom Fellow in Art Therapy

Institute for Therapy through the Arts | Evanston, Illinois

July 26, 2019

Hello my lovely readers! In this week’s blog about my time at Institute for Therapy through the Arts (ITA), I will be discussing why the creative arts (art, music, dance/movement, and drama) are important therapeutic tools.

Most people like to assume that unless they are Van Gogh, Beethoven, Meryl Streep, or Anna Pavlova, they cannot be artists or create art, which is completely untrue. According to several different books and research studies, the action of art-making, regardless of proficiency, is a means of increasing certain brain chemicals, such as dopamine and serotonin, that make people happy. Therefore, the creative arts are a great way to increase happiness and quality of life for all sorts of populations.

Another cool reason the creative arts are amazing therapeutic tools is the fact that they are nonverbal. When making art, people don’t necessarily need to talk in order to heal because their brains are healing through the creative process. The nonverbal nature of the creative arts therapies is great for neurodivergent populations, meaning people that have brains that function in ways that diverge significantly from the dominant societal standards of “normal.” Many people with Autism, ADHD, and intellectual disabilities are considered neurodivergent. Oftentimes, people with brains that function differently, like those of neurodivergent individuals, don’t always have the ability to verbalize how they are feeling, so a nonverbal therapy would be best for treating them. For example, on Wednesday, I went to an in-home session with a client who has had a mild intellectual disability. She has trouble speaking, but loves making music. Seeing her perk up and sing a word or two of a Beach Boys song always makes my day, and I know that she is progressing towards her goal of speaking more coherently.

A re-creation of a typical session with Brad and the client

People with a history of trauma are also great candidates for creative arts therapies. My supervisor specializes in treating clients with a history of trauma. I want to work with trauma populations one day, so I have been reading a lot of my supervisor’s books on trauma treatment. One interesting thing I’ve learned is that traumatic memories are encoded differently than normal memories in the brain. Normally, the brain stores memories in a verbal format, meaning they are easy for you to discuss later on. Traumatic memories, however, are encoded in a nonverbal format, so they can be hard to explain. Once again, a nonverbal form of therapy like the creative arts therapies would be best for treating clients with a history of trauma because of the nonverbal nature of traumatic memories.

A model magic model I made to help me learn about trauma and the brain

The creative arts therapies (CATs) are incredible because of their use of symbolism. The CAT guidebook I just finished reading, the Expressive Therapies Continuum by Lisa D. Hinz, discusses the symbolic nature of art-making as one of the key components in the CATs. Oftentimes clients find it hard to outright discuss their behavior and emotions, especially when dealing with children or trauma history. Speaking, playing, or representing symbolically can ease the discomfort that comes with discussing difficult topics. For instance, I take part in play therapy with a young client with anxiety. She gets visibly uncomfortable when our play becomes too realistic, but when we over-exaggerate our play, she has fun and relaxes with the therapist and me. Through our exaggeration and using our characters as metaphors for real life, we are teaching her ways of coping with anxious feelings.

The creative arts therapies are important therapeutic tools because they allow people to grow and heal.

On Thursday, ITA celebrated National Intern Day with a sign and candy!

Alexa Ferenzi '20

Alexa is a psychology and studio art double major and art history minor from Chicago, Illinois.