When Words Are Not Enough, Listen to Your heART

By Viviana Ni

“Art washes away from the soul the dust of everyday life” ———– Pablo Picasso

A picture is worth a thousand words; when words are not enough, the non-verbal approach of art-making can help express unspeakable emotion.

What is Art Therapy

Art Therapy is a marriage of art and psychology.  It integrates psychotherapeutic techniques with the creative process to improve mental health and well-being. According to the American Art Therapy Association, Art Therapy is “an integrative mental health and human services profession that enriches the lives of individuals, families, and communities through active art-making, creative process, applied psychological theory, and human experience within a psychotherapeutic relationship. Moreover, art therapy is facilitated by a professional art therapist, effectively supports personal and relational treatment goals as well as community concerns. Art Therapy is used to improve cognitive and sensorimotor functions, foster self-esteem and self-awareness, cultivate emotional resilience, promote insight, enhance social skills, reduce and resolve conflicts and distress, and advance societal and ecological change.”

Why Art?

The barrier between image and language is thought (Yalom, 1989).

In primitive society, we initially recorded our life in images on the walls of caves and then language developed after that. When we describe an event or memory, the first thing that appears in our mind is an image, not language; detailed information often is missing and distorted. The process of art-making and sharing in Art Therapy is from non-verbalization to verbalization, from right brain to left brain.  Art is an expressive language of the conscious and unconscious minds.  Art can help activate the right brain in making sense of our experiences, and then connect to our left brain where we can match these experiences with words and deal with associated emotions with reason and gain deeper insight with lesser distortion from our memory.

Benefits of Art Therapy

  • express feelings that may be difficult to verbalize
  • explore your imagination and creativity
  • develop healthy coping skills and focus
  • improve self-esteem and confidence
  • identify, and clarify issues & concerns
  • increase communication skills
  • improve motor skills and physical coordination
  • identify blocks to emotional expression and personal growth.

Who can benefit from Art Therapy?

No art background is needed and people of all ages benefit from Art Therapy.  Art Therapy can help those who are experiencing:

  • Depression, anxiety, and other mood disorders
  • Trauma and loss
  • Special needs & learning difficulties
  • Substance abuse and addiction
  • Abuse and domestic violence
  • Family and relationship issues
  • Social & emotional difficulties related to disability & physical illness
  • Eating disorders & issues with body image
  • Mental health problems

Art Therapy Process

Art Therapists facilitate the making of images or art forms from the client’s imagination, often through thematic, abstract and free expression.

Through the process of engaging with visual or art related materials and participating in art-making activities, individuals gain better insight and understanding of their life journey and experiences which enhances their recovery process.

In general, a typical art therapy session involves non-verbal expression (art) plus verbal expression. Less verbalization is used with children than adults. Depending on the needs of clients, an Art Therapist may integrate different art forms, such as art, music, story-telling, or play.

Art Therapy formats include

  • Individual Art Therapy for children, adults, and the elderly
  • Parent-child Dyadic Art Therapy
  • Group Art Therapy
  • Family Art Therapy
  • Couple Art Therapy


“Is it an art class?”

The goal of Art Therapy is not to “teach” art.  Rather, Art Therapy uses art in a therapeutic/diagnostic capacity which helps the client maximize the art-making experience in order to achieve their therapy goals.

“Do you interpret artworks?”

Art Therapists do not interpret artwork, though we are trained in understanding images and symbols.  The meaning of artwork is always derived directly from an individual’s personal associations and feelings.

“But… I am not good in art”

You do not need to be good in art;  in fact, 90% of clients do not have any art background.  You just need an open mind.  Art Therapy values the art making process more than the finished product.

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