Have you ever found yourself lost in a song? Or so absorbed with dancing that your problems – and your pain – fall away? Art therapy for chronic pain aims to harness that feeling and use it to encourage physical and mental healing.
Many studies have shown the benefits of this practice. Let’s explore the exercise and how it can alleviate your chronic pain as well as benefit your overall health and well-being.
What is art therapy for chronic pain?
Art therapy is a form of psychotherapy that promotes the use of art as a way to improve your wellbeing. It’s not recreational art-making. While creating art as a leisure activity can be an inherently healing process, art therapy takes it a step further.
In an art therapy session, you use your art to relate to your pain, talking through the emotions you may encounter.
If you’re participating in the visual arts, this could mean that the lines, shapes, and colors you draw may have a deeper meaning you can examine. Driving the theory of art therapy is the mind-body experience or the belief that your mental state can affect your physical state.
Patients work with a registered or board certified art therapist. Classes are usually weekly, lasting half an hour to an hour, depending on the patient.
This therapeutic tool can be used as a complement to your pain medications or integrated into your chronic pain management plan. Artistic experience is not needed. Instead, the creative process is central and more important to the therapy.
Art, in this case, is very subjective and can include:
- drawing and painting
- mixed media
- woodworking and ceramics
- dancing or singing
How can art therapy help?
Let’s look at 4 powerful ways art therapy for chronic pain can impact your life:
#1: It can distract you from your pain
Producing art can be an all-consuming process that shuts you off from the outside world. “I didn’t realize it at the time, but I often got lost in the process of creating. It gave my mind, and in some sense, my body, a rest,” said Peggy Cowan of the American Chronic Pain Association.
When you’re engaged in art creation, you’re not focused on your pain. Your mind is focused on the task at hand, instead of obsessing over the pain you may constantly feel. This can reduce your perception of pain and provide a much-needed respite.
You might also find that you’re gaining control over your pain. By engaging with art and choosing how you participate in it, you’re taking charge of your suffering.
#2: It helps your mental health
Pain and mood are intricately intertwined. People with chronic pain are 3 times more likely to develop depression or anxiety symptoms. But art therapy can help.
A 2018 study showed that at least 30 mins of art therapy significantly helped a person’s pain, mood and anxiety levels throughout all genders, ages and diagnoses. It can help relieve stress and depression, while also strengthening your emotional resilience.
Part of art therapy involves examining the emotions your art engenders. By engaging with your art, you can investigate your inner conflicts and try to resolve them to the best of your abilities. Creating art can also help you relax, give you more confidence in your artistic skills and promote acceptance of your new normal.
#3: It helps others see what you’re going through
Sometimes, verbalizing how your pain is affecting you can be next to impossible. Mark Collen, the founder of PainExhibit.org, knows this feeling intimately. After herniating a disc in his lower back, he developed intense, chronic nerve pain.
He showed his art to his healthcare provider, and “his treatment improved as a result of his doctor having a visual reference and seeing the pain through his art. Art was far more effective at communicating pain than words ever could be.”
You may find the same relief. Art is capable of bringing a metaphor to life. It can display key themes of what you’re feeling but are unable to express in words. Researchers have shown that your art can reveal:
- pain as a journey
- gaining pain and losing self
- redeﬁnition of self
- ﬁghting against the “pain identity”
- facing new limitations and boundaries and working toward adjustment and acceptance
If you show your doctor and your therapist your art, it may help them gauge your pain, helping them better treat it.
Because chronic pain is an invisible illness, it can be extremely isolating. Expressing your emotions through art not only helps you connect with your health care team, but also assists friends and family to better understand your pain.
By sharing your art, you can bond with your loved ones. You can also show them your internal conflict with your pain. Perhaps they’ll connect with your fight against pain more when they can see it rather than just hear about it.
#4: It is an outlet for self-expression
When you’re diagnosed with a chronic illness, you may have to face a new normal. What came naturally to you before – driving a car, exercising daily or having a full-time job – may no longer be completely viable. The wide variety of activities to participate in through art therapy, then, can be a great method for self-expression.
Even newcomers to artistic pursuits can benefit from the self-discovery and growth that are common to art therapy. By using your art to process pain, you will also be able to talk more openly about the pain, processing it more fully.
Art therapy for chronic pain: next steps
The American Art Therapy Association can provide you with more information about how to find an art therapist. If you are interested in looking at art made by people with chronic illnesses, visit PainExhibit.org for galleries ranging from “Portraits of Pain” and “But You Look So Normal.” You also have the option to submit your own art to the website.
Instagram is also a treasure trove for chronic pain artists. Artists such as @emnotemma, @ogrefairydoodles and @thisthingtheycallrecovery showcase beautiful art pieces that are shareable on social media.
How has art therapy helped you manage your chronic pain?
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This post has been updated in May 2019 with new information and resources.