The Use of Art Therapy in The Treatment Of Eating Disorders

The American Art Association states, “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.”  Through creating art and reflecting on the art products and processes, people can increase awareness of self and others, cope with symptoms, stress, and traumatic experiences; enhance cognitive abilities; and enjoy the life-affirming pleasures of making art.

There are two approaches to Art Therapy.

The first is to be process intensive: art is used as a catharsis, an emotional journey to which self-actualization and discovery are the end result.  The second approach is not to be so concerned with the process of making the art, but with what the person is consciously or unconsciously expressing through their art.  In this way, the art therapist uses art as a window into the subconscious of the patient and from there can attempt to figure out the underlying problems that the patient may be suffering and bring to light the issues for further processing.

The Walker Wellness Clinic offers Art Therapy as part of our treatment of the eating disorder patient.  Art Therapy offers a quiet environment in which the patient is able to non verbally express a free flow of emotions, overcoming patient resistance, and providing insight into their inner personal struggles.  We recently interviewed our Art Therapist, Charlotte Tarell, L.P.C. Here is what Charlotte had to say about the use of Art Therapy in the treatment of eating disorders:

Why is art therapy an important component in the treatment of eating disorders?

Persons with eating disorders are often reliant on verbal defense mechanisms such as rationalization,  intellectualism, and persuasion.  The use of art therapy can help focus therapeutic work on relevant issues and aids in focusing on strengths and positive qualities because art touches on universal healing themes.  Art more easily allows the practitioner to see beyond the symptoms and negative self-presentations of eating disordered patients.

What is the purpose of art therapy and how can it benefit patients in their recovery from an eating disorder?

Art therapy bypasses language-based defenses to reveal inner truths. Persons who experience art therapy are less likely to verbally censor, argue, or confuse themselves, and are more likely to be open to the surprising image answers pulled by the art from deep within them.  This provides insight into their subconscious issues related to the eating disorder.

Do you have to be a great artist to enroll in art therapy?

No! It is the process not the he product that is emphasized in art therapy.  The desire to be perfect that is typical of the eating disorder patient population is removed, and the creative process is freeing the patient from the inner critic during the session.

How an art therapy bring up underlying issues that may not come out in individual, family, or group therapy?

Because the art therapy process identifies underlying issues, insight is provided to the patient that can be further examined with the patient and psychotherapist. This also applies to family art therapy where many of the family issues are exposed and can help with the healing for everyone in the family. Group art therapy is very powerful because by sharing  your artwork with the group, the members can see that they are not alone and therapeutic problem solving and healing can occur for the group members.

How does art therapy enhance the treatment progress for patients who have the following: anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa, binge eating disorder?

Art therapy is relaxing and healing for all three.  It is the role of the art therapist to be a part of the team and address the underlying issues that have caused the patient to develop an eating disorder.  Subconscious issues are quickly identified and can be addressed with the primary therapist.  Through the art therapy experience, the patient can create an environment that eliminates their need for defenses and the patient is in charge of their own healing process.

What can I expect as a patient from art therapy and how does it incorporate into working with other members of the treatment team in terms of giving them feedback and the opportunity to process or address issues that may arise in art therapy that can be discussed in individual, group, or family therapy?

The patient is aware from the beginning of art therapy that the information is shared with the treatment team to help the patient heal faster and gain a new and healthier perspective toward life and relationships.  The process of art therapy can heal the underlying issues that caused this method of having negative control of ones life.  The non-verbal communication that art therapy provides is very healing and provides insight to the patient.