The Healing Power of Art Therapy


This Webinar Recorded on January 11th, 2018 as part of our “Wisdom from Wall” webinar series.

Presented by: Alexandra Back, MA, ATR-BC, Board Certified Art Therapist at CNNH

Using Art in Treating Anxiety in Children with Developmental Delays and Autism Spectrum Disorders

This webinar will explore the uses and benefits of Art Therapy for addressing anxiety in individuals with developmental delays, ASD, Asperger’s, ADHD, and other neurological concerns. Learn about Art Therapy as a practice and the unique advantages of engagement in a Creative Arts Therapy, especially in relation to anxiety. Participants will gain knowledge of the therapeutic process as well as how art-making specifically can be used to enhance and support self-awareness, improve coping strategies, and encourage an overall sense of well-being.

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10 Ways Art Therapy Can Improve Your Mood

Patients who receive a neurological or neuropsychological evaluation from a CNNH expert may receive a treatment recommendation for Creative Arts Therapy, including: music therapy, dance/movement therapy or art therapy. Some might think this a curious treatment option coming from a brain health expert, but, in fact, Art Therapy is internationally recognized as an intervention for a wide range of clinical diagnoses, including (but not limited to): ADHD / cognitive disorders and dementia / autism spectrum disorders / epilepsy / anxiety and mood disorders / trauma-related disorders / PTSD / traumatic brain injury.

Modalities for this therapeutic intervention are selected based on each individuals’ interests, such as drawing, painting, sculpture, writing, collage and much more! Consider these ways Art Therapy might improve the mood of someone you love…

  • Helps re-activate pleasure centers in the brain
    Experiences that engage the senses, such as art-making can activate the release of pleasure-related neurotransmitters in the brain, such as dopamine, reinforcing art as a mood-enhancing experience.
  • Boosts self-esteem and promote sense of self-worth
    Making an artistic creation in real space can reinforce confidence in abilities and skills that can then translate to other situations and settings outside of art therapy. Seeing a physical product that you have created with your own two hands can encourage feelings of self-worth and control over your environment.
  • Reduces physical stress and tension by serving as a cathartic outlet
    The physical manipulation of media, such as clay or painting, can relieve tension. Both fine and gross motor movements utilizing art media can be powerful in discharging energy in the body and inducing a sense of calming relief.
  • Provides space for externalizing inner experiences
    Inner experiences are sometimes difficult to articulate with words. Art making allows an individual to externalize inner feelings and may bring greater awareness to an individual of how they are feeling at any given moment.
  • Creates a sense of purpose and mastery, control over environment
    Art can be a purposeful task that allows an individual to exert control over choices in the form of art media.
  • Creates opportunity to engage with others in non-threatening way
    Art can serve as a shared space between two people. Art can help those with mood concerns by engaging them with others in an indirect manner and may feel less intrusive than other forms of therapeutic engagement.
  • Facilitates self-reflection: learning about unknown strengths, building upon existing strengths
    Many individuals find that they are more capable in creative expression than they once believed, and may even discover new abilities or talents they were previously unaware they had.
  • Enhances communication: can express visually in pictures what may be challenging or frustrating to express with words
    Some experiences are difficult to communicate with verbal language. By expressing feelings, events, challenges, and triumphs through art, individuals can more easily express what is occurring within and around them. Art can be a non-verbal vehicle for communication and connection to others, as well as a catalyst for verbal communication and expression.
  • Increases social support through shared art experiences
    By participating in a group art experience, or even simply sharing art with others such as parents, caregivers, siblings, friends, colleagues, etc., individuals can build up their social supports. During times of stress or depression, these social supports can assist in resiliency and help the individual to manage symptoms more adaptively.
  • Encourages healthy habits such as regular self-care and self-awareness
    Developing regular engagement with visual art-making can serve as a powerful tool in becoming self-aware and in knowing when self-care techniques are important to use.

Addressing Anxiety with Creative Arts Therapies

What is Anxiety?

Everyone has experienced a situation where they have felt stress, worry, or nervous – unsure of the outcome of a given situation, discomfort in a new environment, or fear of the unknown. To many people, brief moments of anxiety, or episodes of uncertainty are not something that needs to be examined by a medical professional, but to some children and adults, anxiety interferes with daily life.

For children, anxiety is associated with hyper-arousal (‘flight or fight response’) and with behavioral and verbal inhibition. Children with anxiety disorders show deficits in their ability to communicate their emotions to other people. Creative arts therapies (dance, music, and art) are recommended for children with anxiety due to their direct and at times, non-verbal, approach to perception, expression, and regulation of emotions, as well as the motivational and engaging nature of the therapies.

Creative Arts Therapies may take the form of individual or group therapies. Many children with anxiety may start in individual therapy in order to build a trusting relationship with the therapist and become familiar with the environment. The goal for many children with anxiety is not only to work on increasing self expression and decreasing feelings of anxiety, but also to feel comfortable in social settings.

In Music Therapy, children use musical play to express and regulate emotions, listen to specific relaxation music to regulate their psychophysical hyperarousal and stress level, and begin to communicate their feelings to other people (Goldbeck, L., Ellerkamp, T., 2012). Music therapists lead engaging songs and instrument playing activities, based on the interests of each individual. Music has the ability to trigger various emotions in all people, so identification and expression of emotions from ‘happy’ or ‘scared’, to ‘sad’ or ‘excited’ is a common goal of music therapy sessions. For example, a child may work on a song writing activity that discusses something ‘happy’ – such as a birthday. The therapist may then facilitate the song writing to develop a scenario about a birthday party, which may be a trigger for social anxiety. After the song is written, the child may be encouraged to find various instruments to demonstrate various parts of the song. The tambourine might represent the excitement of waking up on your birthday and opening presents, while the drum might represent the loud and overwhelming sounds of a crowd at a party. The child has now musically expressed various emotions and the music therapist can build discussion or future experiences from that point, dependent on the individual’s needs and abilities.

In Dance/Movement Therapy, individuals with anxiety can develop a heightened awareness of themselves, their emotions, and how to manage their physiologic responses to anxiety producing situations. The mind may over-analyze anxiety producing situations, and the body may respond with muscle tension, headaches and heightened blood pressure. Therefore, dance and movement exercises addressing anxiety may include: Relaxation Visualization exercises to increase body awareness, release emotional tension, and gain an effective coping strategy (Bourne 2005) and Mindfulness to help accept the current situation, foster patience and interrupt anxiety thinking (Foxman, 2007).
A dance/movement therapy session will incorporate role-play frequently throughout the activities. A child will develop individual ideas and creativity, while the therapist facilitates the use of non-verbal gestures, facial expressions, and interactions. Specific anxiety producing scenarios can be acted out and then re-played in various forms in order to work on developing and practicing coping strategies.

Art Therapy provides opportunities in self-expression, development of coping strategies, and improved self-regulation. In addition, art therapy opens the door for deeper communication into anxiety producing situations by first encouraging the child to engage in an art –making experience without using any verbal interaction, encouraging the creativity, and then finally processing verbally with the therapist. The art therapist will be aware of the use of various colors, force, and space within a creation and will then analyze the meanings behind this non-verbal expression in future experiences or conversations. Many art therapists also encourage daily ‘art’ journals, as an alternative to a written journal, which may be more motivating for a child.

Further Reading
Bourne, E. (2005). The Anxiety & Phobia Workbook Fourth Edition. Oakland, CA: New Harbinger Publications, Inc.
Foxman, P. (2007). Dancing with Fear. CA: Hunter House Publishers.
Goldbeck, L., Ellerkamp, T. (2012). A Randomized controlled trial of multimodal music therapy for children with anxiety disorders. Journal of Music Therapy, 49(4), 395-413.

By Kathleen Nace