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Promoting Growth through Art Therapy in the Wilderness

Mary Zaunbrecher, MS, LPC | Clinical & Family Services Therapist

Art Therapy - Mary Z. Open Sky Wilderness Therapy

Art therapy is the use of artistic media and creative expression to identify and communicate feelings, thoughts, and beliefs. At Open Sky Wilderness Therapy, this type of self-expression is a valuable tool for students as they begin to explore and work through the issues that brought them to wilderness therapy in the first place. Art therapy makes use of the creation process to foster awareness, encourage emotional growth and enhance relationships with others. The basic premise is that expressive arts therapy allows an individual to explore his or her identity, improve nonverbal communication skills and gain insight into thoughts, patterns and behaviors.

One of the reasons I enjoy using art therapy in the field is that it puts the power in the students’ hands. They are in control of their own process by creating a unique piece of art and choosing how much to share about the intention and process behind it. Later in the student’s stay, we can re-visit the piece of art and use it to deepen the conversation as the student begins to grow and think of their art in new ways.

It’s about the process, not the result

Art therapy can be helpful because it begins as a nonverbal way of exploring one’s struggles and tapping into the deeper work. In general, art therapy benefits the following general areas:

  • Self-exploration: The process of getting in touch with thoughts, feelings and past experiences through the use of different mediums, which may help to slow down and increase self-reflection.
  • Personal fulfillment: The creation of something tangible can build confidence and nurture feelings of self-worth, while the analytical components of the process can foster increased therapeutic growth and fulfillment.
  • Empowerment: Art therapy can help individuals visually express emotions and fears that they were unable to articulate through conventional means. This can provide a sense of power over feelings that might have previously led to overwhelm or stress.
  • Relaxation and stress relief: Whether used alone or in combination with other relaxation techniques such as guided imagery, art therapy can be a potent stress reliever.
  • Symptom relief and physical rehabilitation: Art therapy can help individuals cope with pain and promote physiological healing by identifying and working through emotional stressors that might affect one’s physical health, such as stress and anxiety.
  • Developmental growth: Art therapy can improve motor skills and cognitive functioning.
  • Social growth: Through expressive arts therapy, students gain awareness and can explore new ways of being in relationship. Art therapy can also build interpersonal skills when used in groups, to address conflict, communication issues, or other themes.Art Therapy 2 - Mary Z. Open Sky Wilderness Therapy

Which students benefit from art therapy?

Art therapy can be tailored to fit any individual’s needs. We can choose from a variety of media depending on what resonates with the student. Some forms I’ve seen Open Sky students utilize include: songwriting, dance, drama, drawing, or creating a piece from materials they’ve harvested from the natural world around them.  Whichever medium is used, we can then go further and individualize the topic and complexity of therapy. Perhaps the art becomes a symbol of their struggle with self-harm, substance abuse, or broken relationships. Maybe the focus shifts to the creative process itself as a way to understand the student’s deeper emotional work from a new perspective. Each time I engage a student in art therapy, it is always individualized and person-centered.

Some students haven’t developed the ability to verbally articulate what is going on internally. This may be because they aren’t able to identify emotions or don’t have the language to describe them. Some are simply uncomfortable with or resistant to traditional talk therapy and struggle with opening up.

If a student is defensive, guarded, anxious, withdrawn, or defiant in other therapeutic approaches, art therapy can be a way to stimulate more nonverbal reflection and, eventually, deeper verbal content. The art, the student and the therapist form a triad, creating reflective distance. This means that it’s not just the student and the therapist, seen in conventional talk therapy, which may stir up defensiveness or guardedness. The art becomes a buffer that creates a more natural avenue for the student to step into an attitude of sharing and opening up.

What does the research say?

Different areas in our brains are specialized for different tasks and levels of complexity. The right hemisphere of the brain thinks in terms of symbols. It connects a person to his or her emotions by communicating through images or other representations of feelings and experiences. The left hemisphere is more analytical, allowing a person to relate to their feelings and experiences more specifically with words.

The beauty of art therapy is that it actually activates both sides of the brain. As a student creates art, he or she is using the “right brain” to communicate and express themselves in a tangible and symbolic way. But as the student processes these symbols by considering the internal processes, patterns and behaviors that inspired the art, he or she is using the more analytical “left brain.” As a result, art therapy has not only been shown to improve emotional regulation but also to improve cognitive functioning. Again, it’s not about the outcome of the art itself—it’s about the whole process of accessing and processing information, memories, and emotions, and then expanding and analyzing them.

Creativity in the wilderness

Creative expression and intervention are inherent to wilderness therapy: they are used to transform hard skills and patterns into metaphors for life and growth, to enhance ceremony for students and families, and for individuals and groups to adapt to life in the wilderness. So, the idea of taking this creative context a step further with artistic expression in therapy is not that far off from what we’re already doing. There are a lot of ways for students to use what’s around them as the canvas or media. At times, I bring in other resources like music or clay. Storytelling is a rich tradition at Open Sky and that can be a form of creative therapy as well, along with drama, skits, bibliotherapy, games and more.

Art Therapy 3 - Mary Z. Open Sky Wilderness Therapy

In my work as a wilderness therapist, art therapy can be an invaluable tool for assessment. I use it to meet each student where he or she is at in their process. I can then track growth, witnessing how the student’s insight and engagement evolves throughout his or her time at Open Sky. For instance:

  • Week 2: A student, using only a pencil, draws a very small image and keeps it hidden from others.
  • Week 4: The student begins to use different media to elaborate on or re-create the initial image. He or she is more engaged in the artistic process of creating, processing internally, but still resistant to sharing or processing with myself or the group.
  • Week 6 and beyond: The student is fully engaged in processing the memories, issues, or behaviors that the art was designed to shed light on. We can continue to deepen the conversation around these topics and how to move forward therapeutically.

I truly value the way that art can enhance a student’s therapeutic process in wilderness. It allows the student to explore, reflect on, and connect more deeply to what is occurring under the surface. There’s a concept in psychology that is about creating conditions that are necessary and sufficient for change and growth to occur. Art and wilderness can create an environment in which the student is empowered to have control over their growth. Art therapy increases self-efficacy and self-esteem by motivating students in a new, experiential, and expressive way that leads them to new levels of engagement and progress.

July 9th, 2018

Mary Zaunbrecher, MS, LPC | Clinical & Family Services Therapist