The essence of true emotional health centers upon life experiences and exploration of emotions related to each experience, yet many of us are encouraged to suppress our feelings from an early age. Studies show that repression of emotion can lead to varying forms of stress which may ultimately result in physical illness. The contradictions between societal pressure to suppress emotion and the human body’s need to release emotion in a healthy way create conflict.
Some people seek and discover ways in which to release emotion and maintain balance in their lives on their own, while others may seek the advice and guidance of a psychotherapist. Psychotherapists use many tools in assessment and treatment ranging from a more traditional approach to other methods labeled “alternative” due to their primarily historical and cultural basis. As the mental health field has progressed, alternative methods have gained more and more attention. Although art and interpretation of art has been used in assessment for many years, the inclusion of art in therapy has more recently established an alternative avenue for healing which has resulted in emotion released through creativity.
Emotional Health Connected to Physical Health
The hypothalamus is a portion of the brain that links the nervous system to the endocrine system, essentially transforming emotions into physical reaction. Dubbed the “emotional center” of the brain, the hypothalamus also dictates system functions related to several essential body functions like heart rate, metabolism, sleep cycles and many more.
The mind and the body work together therefore, keeping the mind healthy contributes to our physical well being and longevity.
Art for Diagnostic Purposes
Psychotherapists have used visual images, drawings and other forms of art such as the Rorschach Inkblot Test, House-Tree-Person Test (HTP), and the Thematic Apperception Test (TAT) as diagnostic tools for decades.
Created by Hermann Rorschach in 1921, the Rorschach Inkblot Test consists of ten white cards with blots of ink which are black, black and red, or multi color. A person is assessed by being shown the cards one at a time followed by a request for their visual interpretation of each. Standardized interpretation has been established for this test to reveal emotions (unmet needs, fear, sadness) and better develop a plan for treatment.
The Thematic Apperception Test was authored by two American psychologists, Henry A. Murray and Christiana D. Morgan, in the 1930’s while the scoring system for the test was later devised in 1943 by Murray. The TAT is a projective test that consists of 31 cards displaying human figures in an array of settings. The person given the test is asked to examine each card and through their interpretation, explain what they believe the person in the card is feeling, what has occurred to make the person feel that way and what the result of the situation is. This test is considered a tool in eliciting a person’s views and thoughts of themselves and others as well as acquiring an analysis of the person’s personality.
The TAT is used in assessing candidates for employment in fields requiring a high degree of interaction with people and/or jobs involving high levels of stress. It is not generally used to diagnose a mental disorder but may be used to match an individual who has already been diagnosed with the type of psychotherapy that will best suit their personality and needs.
The House-Tree-Person Test, developed in 1948 by John N. Buck and later updated in 1969, can be given to anyone over the age of three and simply consists of a person being asked to draw a picture of a house, a tree, and a person. Upon completion of the drawings, the individual being assessed may be asked to tell a story of each picture or answer specific questions regarding each of the drawings. There are varying methods used in interpreting the drawings depending on the therapists training and conjectural approach. A goal of this test is to weaken the defenses in order to gain a clearer vision of the person’s subconscious.
In addition to the use of art for analysis and diagnostic purposes, art is used in psychotherapy treatment plans to help reconcile emotional conflict. According to the American Art Therapy Association, “Art therapy is the therapeutic use of art making, within a professional relationship, by people who experience illness, trauma, or challenges in living, and by people who seek personal development.” Art therapists are trained in both art and therapy with their knowledge encompassing matters of human development, psychological theory, clinical practice, spiritual belief, and art history as well as methods in practicing art therapy. Art therapists convey the great healing potential of art.
Materials and Methods in Practicing Art Therapy
• Painting: Paint, brush, canvas or paper (depending on type of paint)
• Sketching: Pencil, paper, sketchpad
• Collage: Magazines, scissors, glue, sheet of paper
• Sewing: Fabric, scissors, sewing needle and/or sewing machine
• Photography or Filmography: Camera, digital image card or film
• Writing: Paper and pen or computer
• Performance: Act, sing, dance, play an instrument
Whether the emotions felt are related to coping with daily stress, loss, illness, abuse or other traumatic experiences, art provides an outlet with which to bring emotions to the surface. Expressing emotion through question and answer verbal communication can be intimidating, where art therapy represents a safe place to go for distraction, expression, healing and mental well-being for people of all ages.