Putting words on a trauma, terror or emptiness that you feel can be an impossible task. But expressing it in colours, lines, shapes can come surprisingly naturally. When we hit our verbal limits, art therapy can often offer a way forward.
People suffering from a traumatic event, fears, feelings of emptiness or other psychological issue are sometimes unable to express in words what's troubling them. But painting, drawing or sculpting under a therapist's supervision may help to get it out, enabling them to better understand the problem and to resolve it.
This is art therapy. You can come into contact with it if you undergo psychiatric treatment in a hospital or day clinic, where creative arts therapies - which include dance, drama and music therapy, for instance - have become well established in many places.
"It's a form of psychotherapy using art," explains Karin Dannecker, head of the continuing education course in art therapy at Berlin-Weissensee Art Academy in Germany.
Patients convey their mental state by means of paints, paper, stone or clay; the works of art they create give a glimpse of their inner world.
"It makes feelings, longings, wishes and things they've experienced and suffered through visible and tangible," says Andreas Somnitz, an art and design therapist at Duisburg Private Day Clinic in Germany.
The art therapist helps the patient understand his or her work. In conversation with each other, they explore what's to see in the picture or sculpture - without making any judgements.
Group art therapy is similar: Participants discuss what they see in their work and the works of others. "Simply creating art and talking about it often has a healing effect," says Dannecker.
Art therapy patients frequently find words that had been bottled up inside them. In secure surroundings, they come to have the courage to explore the personal meanings of their works - verbally.
New ways of looking at things can result from creating art and examining it closely, remarks Somnitz, adding that art therapy also enables patients to experience and test limits.
"It can reconfigure their inner world to a certain extent," he says.
In this way, people dealing with cancer or the death of a loved one, for instance, can find help. Some continue their artistic activity when the therapy is over in order to keep their daily life in balance.
"Those who experimented artistically during therapy may also be prepared to solve problems creatively afterwards," says Dannecker.
At the art academy where she works, art therapy takes place in a room furnished like a studio. "The environment alone is meant to be stimulating and arouse the desire to be creative," she says.
Be it watercolours, soapstone or chalk, patients can choose the materials they'd like to work with. If they want, the therapist instructs them in their use.
Somnitz gives an example: "A pencil, having a clear stroke, provides better stability and therefore greater security than fluid paint, which is applied with a brush, quickly intermingles with other paints or runs uncontrollably."
Patients can follow their own ideas or take suggestions from the therapist. In group art therapy, certain topics are sometimes specified.
The duration of art therapy depends on various factors. For one thing, it's very much geared to the individual. And the nature of the person's problem plays a role as well. - dpa