Why Art Therapy is Such a Powerful Tool

March 4, 2019

Hello LBBCers! My name is Stephanie, I am a breast cancer survivor and art therapist facilitating two workshops at the upcoming metastatic breast cancer conference in April. I wanted to connect with you prior to the conference to explain art therapy and to dispel the common myths that contribute to performance anxiety when creating art. Here’s a secret; you don’t need to have artistic skill to benefit from art therapy. At the conference, you’ll have a chance to experience its power.

Cancer is a disruptive force. It makes you look directly into the chasm of life, reminding you in many ways that you’re not in complete control. It inserts a wedge into your ability to be independent, into your ability to live privately, into your ability to do what you want to do, when you want to do it.

If you have been diagnosed with cancer, then you understand that cancer is more than just a medical problem. Cancer not only impacts your body; it impacts you emotionally, mentally, and spiritually. Having cancer causes you to re-examine how you see yourself, impacting your identity and how you show up in the world.

When you’re in survival mode, you need to tuck away the parts of your experience that you can’t fully come to terms with in the moment. This compartmentalizing is valid and effective in the short run, but over time these tucked away bits contribute to the post-traumatic stress disorder that cancer creates if they are not explored, expressed and released.

One significant challenge that comes along with PTSD is the overwhelming emotions that surge when you’re triggered. These emotions need a vehicle that allows them to be seen and acknowledged, while at the same time, containing them. Art therapy is an effective vehicle because it slows down the process and allows you to get those feelings off your chest and onto paper.

Art therapy offers you the ability to restore yourself. It gives you the ability to develop your skills for reflection and resiliency, and to find ways to lean into the emotional chaos in order to let it go. As you practice art therapy, you’ll feel more connected to yourself andregain the ability to influence how you respond and process the curve balls cancer throws.

Practicing art therapy allows you to develop your own personal magic. There are three parts of art therapy: E.S.P.

Express

You look to art and creativity to begin to express what you see and feel. The more comfortable you become, the more you begin to find ways to reorganize or unfreeze your thoughts, feelings, and experiences. This allows you to process them with less struggle.

Soothe

As you express yourself, you begin to develop ways of responding, rather than reacting, to what is coming forth. Using art and creativity engages you in your creative problem solving skills. Unlike your mind (which always seems to have an agenda), your art is speaking for the part of you that has been shut down or shoved aside, and lets you spontaneously find solutions. This gives you a release from suffering and allows you to soothe yourself.

Process

Once you have expressed and soothed yourself, you can begin the last and most juicy step that everyone wants. It’s when you make meaning out of your experience. It’s when you feel more empowered as you integrate the experience into your life story and your identity – you begin to process it.

Now that you have information about why art therapy is such a potent tool for healing, let’s dive into the common myths that contribute to the natural anxiety of learning and trying something new.

Myth #1: Only artists and creative people can benefit from art therapy.

This myth often comes with memories of being criticized or judged for your unique creative voice, because standards are often applied when they truly do not belong. Creativity is something that exists in everyone from birth. It is an innate gift every person has. Reclaiming and rediscovering your unique creative voice is one way that you can get in touch with your intuition, something that a cancer diagnosis often disrupts.

While it’s normal to feel anxious about trying something new, keep in mind that the goal of using art therapy for healing is not to create a masterpiece. The goal is to express your thoughts, feelings and experiences using color, shape and form.

For example, if you were to describe what it feels like to be anxious, what color would you choose to match that feeling? If you were to draw anxiety on paper, what marks or shapes might you draw to embody it? Do you have an image that comes to mind that represents a time when you felt anxious?

The image at the top of this blog is a SCANxiety drawing from my personal journal. [SCANxiety is a term some use to describe the anxiety felt right before, during or after a scan to see if you are still cancer-free.]You will notice that I combined a blend of imagery and words to capture and translate how I was feeling.

Myth #2: I won't know where to begin.

This is a common fear, worrying that you won’t know where to begin. Especially when you think about the magnitude of cancer’s impact. Yet if we were to sit down and talk about what you’ve been through, I imagine that you’d have plenty of stories to tell.

Art therapy and creative coping is another way of telling your story. One common challenge of PTSD is that words don’t always come when you’re trying to tell the story of what has caused you pain, when you’re trying to tell the story of what you’ve compartmentalized to emotionally survive. This is why art can be so effective;  you can show what has happened, literally or abstractly. The gift you receive is a release of tension that your body and mind held onto as they awaited the opportunity to share.

When you sit down to use art or creativity to tell your story, it’s helpful to set a small goal for your work. I help clients narrow it down to a moment, a thought or a feeling, and then we follow the lead of our creative intuition.

At the metastatic conference, one of my sessions will focus on loving yourself, cell by cell, from the inside out. The other, longer session will use simple art supplies to explore and express a shared experience of all the participants, creating a piece that reflects what it has been like to be at the conference.

Myth #3: I will feel worse if I allow myself to get in touch with painful experiences.

This myth is one of the most potent. It keeps you trying to forge ahead, because who has the emotional training to handle cancer? Again, forging ahead has its benefits when you’re in survival mode. However, at some point, the collective emotional impact catches up with you.

I believe that we all deserve to live as well as we can for as long as we can, which means you’ll need a safe and supportive way to wade through painful experiences. Art therapy becomes a gentle way to release what has happened to you and gives you a way to express your feelings without being stuck. As one of my virtual workshop participants testified:

Not until Stephanie McLead Estevez’s workshop…would I have ever realized Creativity – the spark of one kind or another that’s in everyone – could be as powerful in treating the mind, body and heart of those with cancer as medication, radiation, meditation, support groups, therapy and even faith in God.

At the conference, you’ll have the opportunity to experience creativity and art for coping and expressing. This will give you a hands-on perspective, and you’ll walk away with tips for creating your own “art therapy first-aid kit” and ideas of how to apply the skills we learn when you return home.

I want to honor the leap of faith that it takes to try something new. I look forward to meeting you in April!


Stephanie McLeod-Estevez, LCPC, will be leading two art therapy workshops at our 2019 Conference on Metastatic Breast Cancer. You can learn more about Stephanie here

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