Art therapy and the power of the paintbrush

If you were in distress, would you turn to a canvas? Former skeptic Lucy Fry discovers the life-changing potential of art therapy

Last year I painted pictures of my panic attacks. I couldn’t find the words to describe what I’d felt, stuffed into a tube train like a squashed sardine (though, technically, “bad claustrophobia” just about covers it).

I’d travelled in rush hour before—for years in fact—yet I’d never experienced terror like this. I didn’t understand why, suddenly, I was suffering in this way and I was willing to try pretty much 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, chief executive officer at the British Association of Art Therapists. It’s not, as I’d wrongly assumed, meant only for children or arty types who were 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 the 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 in some circumstances, we also edit our feelings to ourselves and get completely cut off from our true emotions—and end up acting in a way that surprises or distresses us.”

This is all too familiar to me. After all, my panic attacks had come as a surprise, hadn’t they?

Perhaps I’d been editing out my anxiety—ignoring my elevating stress levels for so long that only such a cacophonous expression of distress could break through, arriving one day completely without warning.

 

 

"It’s not, as I’d wrongly assumed, meant only for children or arty types who were skilled in drawing and painting"

 

 

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.

Firstly, 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 having to actually speak—that was both cathartic and calming.

Secondly, what emerged was fairly extreme—some of it quite surprising even to me. Clearly, these pictures said it all, acting a bit like messengers from myself and to myself, about why I’d arrived in such a heightened state of anxiety.

There was a person (me) on fire on the tube, next to an identical figure who wasn’t alight. There was also a fraught and quickly sketched image of a huge and oppressive orange spiral, as well as a more intricate portrait of the London Underground and the huge land mass above, pushing forcibly down onto the passengers’ heads.

These images included an undoubted 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 art therapist 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, or feel distressed, you can.”

Forty-five-year-old fireman, Jack, experienced a similar kind of transformation via art therapy after he responded to a gruesome road traffic accident in London last year, where a man was trapped underneath a lorry and ultimately 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 completely 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 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.

 

 

"These three images told me something about my emotional life and how I was moving on"

 

 

“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.”

During his next session, Jack created a second image. It 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 clearly coming from the head—not all-consuming. The sky has become red and yellow instead of black.”

Jack’s third image in this series is a painting of a bridge over a river. “I think it’s about transition and transformation. On one side of the bridge the river is blood red and black, and on the opposite side it’s blue and green. These three images told me something about my emotional life and how 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. She held an exhibition of some of her related photographs in a gallery in Central London last year.

“Both of my parents had been incredibly unwell before then,” she says. “I had a really broken heart and never understood why. I think I started to take photographs of myself because I felt so wrong in my own body, and so confused and so traumatised.”

For Alice, taking the photographs and developing them marked the beginning of starting to understand herself better. “It was the positions I would adopt, places I’d be, look on my face. I learned things from them, just like in drawing where you learn from asking why you chose that shape or why you chose that colour.”

Mostly, however, Alice’s photography work—along with the other art therapy work she did whilst at The Recover Clinic in West London—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. In those moments, I could grab a piece of paper and pen and draw how I was feeling, accessing emotions in that way instead.”

It's in this manner that using the arts in therapy (be it music, poetry, dancing, painting, drawing or any other artistic medium that you can think of ) can be magical.

“One thing that neuroscience has been able to evidence is that, contrary to popular belief, all the emotions we experience aren’t just conjured up and thrown away,” says art therapist Huet, adding, “the very 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 the use of the arts in 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. Without being able to use the arts and deal with the feelings that I initially had from attending that traumatic incident, I wouldn’t have come into contact with my ability to genuinely know how to be happy and content.”

I couldn’t agree more.

 

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