The Benefits of Art Therapy

Simona Weinstein

This is a story about how art therapy changed a young boy’s life. 

The Setting of Art Therapy 

It was an Aussie Summer. It got me thinking how much time we spend in the pool. 

The Manifestation of Anxiety  

I got a call one day from a mum who was quite distraught. Her primary school aged son was anxious about upcoming swimming classes at school. This meant leaving  the school grounds as a group, travelling by bus to a nearby public pool. It meant getting changed into bathers, entering the pool, following swimming instructions,  changing back into school uniform and then heading back to the school grounds. All  would be fine for the average kid. Here there was one small difference. 

The Traumatic Event 

Months before the mother called me to say her son had an incident in a friend’s  private pool. The boy had been swimming together with friends and family. Everyone  was doing their own little acrobatics and having fun. His father was on the other side  of the pool fence watching his younger sibling. Amongst the hive of aquatic activity,  an older cousin noticed the boy face down in the water, for a bit too long. He turned  him over, noticed he had changed colour and wasn’t breathing! There was absolute  panic.  

The cousin yelled. The father tried to run as fast as he could, but was blocked  momentarily by the locked pool fence. The boy was pulled out of the water and given  CPR. Unfortunately, there was no response. The paramedics arrived. Still there was  no response. During those few moments he was pronounced “clinically dead”. The  paramedics continued frantically to work with him and bring him back to life. 

Suddenly, with nothing short of a miracle, his breathing returned. The boy was taken  to hospital where he had open heart surgery and was nursed back to a full recovery.  Physical recovery, that is. His mental health was another story. 

How the Art Therapy client presented 

I met this brave little boy. He was smiling, talkative and engaging. He told me stories  of his family and his joyful time on the beaches during his Summer holidays. As he  drew and painted sunshine and beaches, he narrated about his happy school days,  family and friends.  

Themes in the Art Therapy sessions 

Within two weeks, his drawings had transformed from blue water and yellow sandy beaches, to red water and black sharks. The red water was messy, chaotic and filled  the whole page. There was no sand on the beach, no space to run for refuge. The  water was full of scary large black sharks that circled. There were no people in the  mage. He painted sharks week after week, as he processed the fear and danger that  they represented. Sharks and water became a consistent theme.  

Progress in Art Therapy 

One week I suggested “perhaps we make a shark?” He jumped at the idea. Using  chicken wire, plaster and black paint, he made a shark with sharp teeth! It took a few  weeks to construct as he carefully moulded his sculpture. He smoothed the plaster  with his hands and worked the plaster to fill any gauze gaps. He was focused and  intense. The shark needed water and so we built a “pool” lined with plastic to fill with  water. Once the pool was full, I suggested “Let’s put the shark in the water?”,  followed by “What about taking the shark out of the water?” and then “How about you stepping into the water now?” Lo and behold, the young boy couldn’t contain his  excitement! 

Processing anxiety and trauma through Art Therapy  

Some weeks this client would dip string in red paint and paste it on the water. There  was a fascination with thin strings and red paint. He would cut many strings in to little  pieces and then gingerly place them on his image, as though he was performing  some delicate procedure, sticking the strings down with glue. When I mentioned this  in the parent review, asking whether strings held some significance in their life, they  explained that the boy had a scar of stiches from open heart surgery as a result of  the pool incident, but because the family didn’t talk about it they were sure that he  wouldn’t have even noticed it, and it probably wasn’t an issue for him. It seems the  young boy had noticed the scar on his body. The mystery played on his mind and  this was his way of making sense of that event. Art therapy is the language that can  access subconscious memories, thoughts, events and beliefs in a way that the  verbal conscious vehicle may simply not have access to. 

How Art Therapy works 

The ability to externalise his fear and make sense of the trauma in a non-verbal  context allowed this young boy to completely process his experience. He was able to  witness his emotions, release them from an internal space of holding, and empower  himself to reconnect with water in a safe and harmless context. The art therapy  offered him a vehicle through which to understand on many levels. It worked on a  cognitive, kinaesthetic, emotional and behavioural level. His cognitive thoughts were  altered regarding water. He was able to re-experience water safely. He released his  emotional fears and behaviourally, eventually the young boy could re-engage in the  swimming activity with his class.

Neurophysics and Art Therapy 

Metaphors. Symbols. A change in the brain’s thinking. This young boy articulated his  fears by using sharks as a metaphor. String dipped in red paint was his processing  the scar on his chest from open heart surgery. Giving a child the opportunity to be  “larger” than their fears and greater than their anxieties gives them a sense of  control. When they experience trauma, adrenalin rushes through the brain, and  some parts are affected. These parts are known as the prefrontal cortex (“Thinking  Center”), the anterior cingulate cortex (“Emotion Regulation Center”), and the amygdala (“Fear Center”). By recreating the experience in a supported environment  we allow the brain to rethink, re-regulate and re-categorise what has happened to  them.  

Success through creativity 

After three months of art therapy, our young brave boy went to school, got on the  bus, travelled to the nearby pool, enjoyed his swimming lessons and then rushed  home to tell his mum how good it was. Art therapy brought success and Summers  are now fun!

Author

Simona Weinstein

Indigo Art Therapy

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