By Rachael Carnes

Have you ever imagined a recent or past experience and, without even realizing it, started doodling about it absent-mindedly in a meeting or during a phone call? Have you ever filled the margins of paper with images or words, underlining, circling, creating dots, lines, or patterns?

Most of us can probably answer “yes.” There’s a science and a whole profession built around the reason why.

The benefits of traditional talk therapy are known, but for a growing number of local folks, art therapy fills a need, a different approach to accessing emotions and unlocking trauma. “Art therapy is a powerful form of therapy that combines both the visual and verbal to help people of any age increase their well-being,” says Grace Fletcher, owner of Art with Grace Counseling. “It’s based on the belief that the creative process can help alleviate stress, improve confidence, increase self-awareness, and restore life balance.”

Fletcher continues, “In art therapy, art making can be used as a way to explore concerns and challenges and as a therapeutic means of releasing stress, anxiety, and other uncomfortable emotions,” noting that it’s different than taking an art class.

According to the American Art Therapy Association, people can use the creative process as well as the product of this process to explore their mental landscape, whether it be the effects of trauma, compulsive behavior, or social skills. As Psychology Today has cited, studies show that art therapy can reduce depression and anxiety, while enhancing the “psychosocial treatment of cancer, including decreased symptoms of distress, improved quality of life and perceptions of body image, reduction of pain perception, and general physical and psychological health.”

Art therapists are trained to notice colors, shapes, symbols, and the way things are drawn or placed on the page. They will ask questions to help the client discover what the art means and how it may help them. “This flexible form of therapy can be practiced in a variety of populations and settings, including hospitals, schools, wellness centers, residential treatment facilities, outpatient settings, memory care facilities, veteran’s centers, correctional institutions, and in private practice,” Fletcher says.

One local nonprofit applying the benefits of art therapy to reach its clientele is the Oregon Supported Living Program (OSLP) Arts & Culture Program. “We believe that everyone has the right to have access to the arts, and that the arts and creative expression help us connect with each other and with ourselves,” says program director Jamie Walsh.

OSLP classes provide outlets for creativity, assist with growth and communication skills, help to reduce stress and problem behaviors, and increase the well-being of program participants. “Our goal is to be an inclusive community arts program, making sure that everything we do is safe and accessible for everyone,” Walsh says. “Sometimes, the biggest disability for those with disabilities can be isolation. We provide a fun and creative space for those we support to come hang out, try new things, be creative, and meet new people.”

Whether in private practice or in a community setting, the power of art is tangible. Art therapist Kathryn Snell-Ryan, owner of Pacific Sky counseling, says, “For most people, making nearly anything can be an incredibly satisfying, calming process—art, food, crafts, gardens, furniture. Art-making, though, has the added benefit of communicating who we are personally and uniquely.”

Becoming an art therapist involves getting a master’s degree in art therapy or psychology with an art therapy emphasis. “I was clear early on that I wanted to work with people, to help people better understand themselves and their life circumstances,” Snell-Ryan says.

And she recently collaborated on a game to support healing and growth. “My colleague, Janine McGraw, and I realized there was a real lack of creative, fun games to help kids communicate their feelings and life experiences,” Snell-Ryan says. A Penny For Your Thoughts: a Survival Kit for Kids & Adults was made to foster connections between kids and their important adults—to talk playfully about what matters most. “We needed a creative tool to help kids get comfortable talking about their lives,” Snell-Ryan says, “while encouraging them to learn and practice skills that help manage big feelings.”

Whatever the ailment or struggle, art therapy offers a viable alternative option for self-care.