By Nicole Speropolous
I know what it’s like to experience depression. Things weren’t always easy for me. My childhood had its share of difficulties that I was ill prepared to handle. Because of this, I isolated myself and generally felt uncomfortable around other people. Once I reached college I could no longer deny what had developed into a full blown panic disorder. I had to address what was going on. I had to make changes.
My life is much different now. I have a successful career, great friends and healthy relationships with my family. And best of all, I feel good. As I look back at my life, I realize there were a few things that got me through the hard times.
When I was about 8 years old I remember being praised for a drawing I had copied from a book as part of a school project. From that point on, I practiced my drawing skills using “Learn to Draw” books and just figuring it out myself. Suddenly, I had something that interested and enthralled me. I often sat in my room for hours, losing all track of time as I created art.
One day when I was feeling angry, hurt and confused, I realized that I could draw my feelings. I’d tried journaling, but it just wasn’t my thing. So I drew frantically what I was too afraid to tell others. I scribbled the pain. I sketched the sadness. With intensity from within, I bared down on the oil pastels as I expressed the anger. Then I hid it all. My art exposed so much of me and my vulnerabilities that I didn’t want a soul to see it. So I tucked it away under my bed.
Over the years, I gradually went from hiding my artwork under the bed to displaying it openly to others. The shift from the dark images of my early years to the vibrant paintings that come forth today is an intriguing one that documents my life process. Years later, my work involves helping others to express themselves fully through art, to make themselves vulnerable while being supported and witnessed.
When I finally figured out what art therapy was, it was a no-brainer for me, a perfect fit. People often ask me to explain what it is and the truth is it can look a variety of different ways. So here’s my explanation. Art Therapy The act of creating art is healing. The human mind, or psyche, naturally knows how to reach or maintain balance. Just like the body’s natural ability to make changes for healing, the mind moves towards that which is beneficial. This happens within the creative process as we allow it to unfold naturally.
Although this was already known to indigenous cultures (and somewhere deep within the rest of the world), Psychologist Carl Jung formally introduced this belief that we have the inherent ability to heal ourselves to the field of psychology. The world of imagery that surfaces as part of the artistic process is a rich one. Creating art opens the door for information from the unconscious to move to the conscious mind. Sometimes this information brings a moment of revelation and clarity. Other times it remains a divine mystery.
There are many reasons why creating art is therapeutic. The process itself involves use of the whole brain. The idea that certain activities take place on one side of the brain has recently been proven to be a remarkably simplistic viewpoint. The artistic process does involve different parts of the brain responsible for different actions. It involves some planning, problem-solving, focus on the details of the task (holding the paintbrush while creating a brush stroke), at the same time focus on the whole of the image. It engages the part of the brain responsible for sensory input and often emotion.
Art can never be the same from one day to the next, even if we try to draw the exact same image. When we engage in new activities, our brains are given a healthy challenge. And when the art process brings joy and/or a sense of belonging (such as in an art therapy group), parts of the brain that have been negatively influenced by trauma actually grow. Picking up a paintbrush when feeling upset instead of reaching for a pint of ice cream, is a new reaction that creates a new connection within the brain. And the more this new action is done, the stronger that neuronal pathway becomes, and suddenly we have a new habit.
Typically art therapists espouse another point of view about how art therapy is useful. This is that art can be used within the therapeutic process as opposed to art being the therapeutic process. Clients usually have an issue they want to address and this becomes the focus of the art-making process. After the artwork is complete, the art therapist and client reflect on it together with curiosity.
With supportive exploration, the artist makes associations and connections that would not have come to light through the intellectual mind alone. This is where the unconscious mind presents useful material. For instance in drawing or painting about a current relationship issue, a person might find something within their art that connects this problem to a specific event from the past. This brings clarity within the therapeutic process as this is then addressed and the root cause cleared.
Sometimes people tell me they can’t make art or that they’re not any good at it. My response is, “Who says?” We all have the ability to create and the right to freedom of expression. We create our lives on a daily basis, and we all do this in different ways. Our lives, like our art, are unique to each individual. There’s a real freedom in knowing my art (my life, my body, my beliefs) doesn’t have to look like anyone else’s.
The intention with art therapy is to express freely and see what emerges. Art therapists are trained to guide this experience, asking the right questions and creating a therapeutic journey. If you’ve ever had that experience of “zoning out” or losing track of time while creating art, you know that art-making can be an altered state of consciousness. This is yet another aspect of art therapy that facilitates the therapeutic process.
Rapid Resolution Therapy (RRT) Later I discovered another tool that helped me to move through issues from the past that continued to affect me. If you’ve never heard of Rapid Resolution Therapy, also known as Rapid Trauma Resolution, you’re not alone. It’s a method, developed by Dr. Jon Connelly, which clears and resolves the effects of trauma quickly and with ease. This is done through engaging the subconscious mind to make a deeper, long lasting change. There are some commonalities between art therapy and RRT. They both utilize the “zoning out” process, distance the person from the issue and provide a new perspective about the conflict at hand. A traumatic event could be a physical assault, war, witnessing a violent act or it could be more along the lines of being teased by peers or criticized by a teacher or parent. These kinds of experiences may affect emotions, thoughts, behaviors, relationships and even physical health.
Knowing that an event had an effect on you is not enough to alter its influence. And it is not necessary to relive the event in order to resolve its effects. When an event is traumatic, it leaves an impression so that the mind reads it as happening as opposed to interpreting it as something that happened. Even after the event is done, a more primitive part of the mind may continue to perceive it as happening. This is why a thought about the event may trigger an emotion. Here’s the kicker: the purpose of the emotion is to motivate an action to take place related to the event that is no longer happening.
Pretty hard to take action about something that’s not even happening! Anxiety and panic attacks are also a result of the mind perceiving a threat that does not exist at that moment. Rapid Resolution Therapy shifts the subconscious mind to be clear that the event is not happening, eliminating the negative effects. There are many other alternative approaches to mental health recovery that people are naturally drawn to such as music therapy, equine therapy, movement therapy, horticultural therapy, and neurofeedback, to name a few.
Perspectives on mental health are changing and many people are taking a more empowered approach in choosing a method that feels right for them. Some of the ideas about what it means to experience mental health conditions are being deconstructed. More and more people understand that they can get better. Those who have been through the experience of a mental health condition are speaking out about their stories and giving others hope. Everyone’s journey is different and it’s important to choose the right path for you.
There were times I could not see the path in front of me and making art gave me clarity and faith. Because I had the experience of struggling through each day and now have the pleasure of enjoying each moment, I know that there is always hope.
Nicole Speropolous is a Licensed Professional Counselor, Licensed and Board Registered Professional Art Therapist, and Certified Rapid Resolution Therapist. She has 10 years of clinical experience and a private practice in West Asheville. You can read more at www.ashevillearttherapy.com and email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.