By C. Lorraine Hall
September 8, 2017
There is much to be said about both art therapy and writing therapy, and both have their usefulness in helping people who have traumatic issues, stress, and/or anxiety. We who do art and writing therapy understand the ways in which they work to help us cope with our emotional overflow and tensions; however, the subject is still under heavy discussion in society.
In the abstract of their article, “The Connection Between Art, Healing, and Public Health: A Review of Current Literature,” Heather L. Stuckey DEd and Jeremy Nobel MD, MPH say that “Although there is evidence that art-based interventions are effective in reducing adverse physiological and psychological outcomes, the extent to which these interventions enhance health status is largely unknown.”
However, in the abstract of Judith Pizarro’s article, “The Efficacy of Art and Writing Therapy Increasing Positive Mental Health Outcomes and Participant Retention After Exposure to Traumatic Experience,” she says that:
Research has shown that traumatic stress has negative effects on overall health and well-being. Traumatic exposure has been linked to higher rates of psychological and physical health problems. Writing about trauma or stress has been shown to improve health and reduce stress, but can negatively affect mood. The purpose of this study was to examine whether art therapy is as effective as writing therapy in improving psychological and health outcomes. Participants in the writing condition, but not the art therapy condition, showed a decrease in social dysfunction. However, participants who completed artwork reported more enjoyment, were more likely to continue with the study, and were more likely to recommend the study to family and friends. Future research could combine writing and art therapy to determine whether a mixed design would both improve health and maximize participant retention.
In this day and age, everyone is aware that stress can be debilitating, both to mental health and to physical health. Stress can be caused by everyday responsibilities and activities, from being a child in school and the expectations that go along with that, to being a teenager and dealing with overwhelming emotions and passions; from being a young adult, struggling to make it in the world, to being a parent, trying to provide for the children. There is job stress, there is home stress in relationships, and all sorts of other factors in life that can cause stress, as well.
For some people, on top of these natural stresses, which only change and alter but don’t ever go away as we age, there has sometimes been trauma. As Pizarro says, “parental psychopathology, substance abuse, death, divorce, and sexual or physical abuse are some of the ways that individuals are exposed to traumatic experience…”(2004). People need ways of coping with these issues, because there is emotional overflow from stress and trauma that can affect choices in life and behaviors such as outbursts of anger, violence, or self-destructive actions.
“The creative arts therapies, like art and writing therapy, have been shown to be effective in helping individuals recover from traumatic experience” (Pizarro). As Pizarro points out in her article, Vietnam war veterans have undergone art therapy in hospital settings for their post-traumatic stress issues, and hashing out a traumatic experience, when in a supportive setting, can help a person work through their trauma, preventing “further development of psychological disorganization and chronic mental health problems” (Pizarro). Evidence has been produced that shows that writing out past or even current traumas does benefit health and psychological issues. Writing therapy helps people develop coping skills while it reduces stress, thereby improving health.
Pizarro’s article covers an experiment and its results, which show that while art therapy is helpful to mental health and overall stress, writing therapy has a stronger effect than art therapy does, especially regarding decreasing social dysfunction in trauma sufferers. However, the act of writing out a traumatic event is more likely to leave negative mood and anxiety directly after writing, leading people to want to discontinue the therapy and/or not recommend it to others, whereas art therapy leaves the person in a better emotional mood, but is lacking the desired long-term effects that writing therapy gives. The two therapies affect people in very different ways.
To repeat, yes, art therapy works to help with stress and trauma, but writing therapy has long-lasting positive effects, especially on social dysfunction. If people are unwilling to use writing therapy because of the negative mood it leaves them in, however effective writing therapy may be, it ceases to be useful to people as a method for healing. Pizarro makes a suggestion that I fully and wholeheartedly agree with: that art and writing therapies could be combined, so that the person doing the therapy can benefit from the enjoyment of the art and the progress it brings them, as well as gaining the long-term benefits of the writing therapy. By creating a better balance to make effective therapy more enjoyable, the art therapy may make it easier for a person’s mood to re-stabilize after a writing therapy session’s depressing effect. In addition, it may provide something positive to look forward to while a person is actually engaged in the performance of the writing exercise.
Heather L. Stuckey, Jeremy Nobel, “The Connection Between Art, Healing, and Public Health: A Review of Current Literature”, American Journal of Public Health 100, no. 2 (February 1, 2010): pp. 254-263. DOI: 10.2105/AJPH.2008.156497. PMID: 20019311. http://0-ajph.aphapublications.org.skyline.ucdenver.edu/doi/abs/10.2105/AJPH.2008.156497
Judith Pizarro MA (2004) The Efficacy of Art and Writing Therapy: Increasing. Positive Mental Health Outcomes and Participant Retention After Exposure to Traumatic. Experience, Art Therapy, 21:1, 5-12, DOI: 10.1080/07421656.2004.10129327. http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/07421656.2004.10129327