Why expats in distress should consider art therapy
2019-04-02 | By Carolyn Van Es-Vines
Living abroad can sometimes impact a person’s physical and mental wellbeing in a negative way. Being in a different environment allows internationals to confront new problems and challenges, discovering new ways to think and feel.
Even though it is exciting and enriching, living abroad does have its costs. Internationals often need to change or give up careers, readjust to different cultures and communities and sometimes make and familiarize themselves with new friends and families.
Moving in general is stressful, and doesn’t exclude hardship from other major life events, such as the death of a loved one, unemployment, divorce or physical illness. In fact, perhaps sometimes the impact of these events is felt stronger because internationals are far away from their common support networks. Left unchecked, severe stress can sometimes result in depression and anxiety.
According to the most recent report from the World Health Organization, the number of people suffering from common mental health disorders is on the rise. Depression affects more than 300 million people worldwide while just as many are affected by anxiety.
An uncommon approach to common problems
Throughout history, art has been used to document our greatest triumphs and darkest struggles, both personal and societal. We’ve turned to art to protest political injustice, calling for revolution and reform. It has been used as a means of communication, self-expression, as an educational tool, and for healing. Since the 1940s, it has become a bona fide career as well as an accredited therapeutic model.
Along with drama, dance, music and play, art therapy focuses attention more on the creative process than on a specific outcome. It emphasizes self-expression to help improve self-esteem, interpersonal skills, reduce stress, improve mental and emotional well-being and to resolve conflicts. Studies have also shown it can ease depression and anxiety.
The American journal Psychology Today claims that art therapy helps people examine psychological and emotional undertones through their art. The choice of media–drawing, painting, collage, coloring or sculpting–not only helps to express oneself creatively, but also serves as a symbol of what’s going on subconsciously. Handling materials like paints, brushes, clay, sandstone and pencils appeal to the five senses, especially touch.
According to The Positive Effects of Art Therapy and Its Affect on the Brain by graduate researcher Lydia Walker, touch is the most social sense and provides the most fundamental way to interact with the world. Touching a specific texture can generate an emotional response, which makes materials like clay, finger paint, sandstone and paper so powerful.
More suitable for expats?
Lest any misunderstanding arise, this section does not presume to judge art therapy as “better” or “worse” than another form of therapy or self-help. It is merely to introduce art therapy as a different approach to suit the challenges arising from the international lifestyle. Expats can struggle to communicate; often they cannot use their native language in a new country. Since art therapy does not rely on verbal communication, it could be a good option.
Sivan Weinstein is a licenced art therapist, and member of the ACCESS Counselling Network, who works closely with expat families and individuals in The Hague. Though she specializes in the dynamics of couples in relocation, she has treated children with behavioral problems and ADHD as well as adults with anxiety and depression. She has noticed some frustration and lack of fulfillment in the expat community.
According to Weinstein, art therapy is a flexible and dynamic treatment that is successful without relying on medicating patients. Her goal is to always understand the source of a problem through accessing the subconscious. “The process stimulates verbal and graphic information, serving to externalize inner feelings and conflicts,” she explains.
The power behind art therapy is that it helps release negative energy and emotions through a creative process. Indeed, Weinstein notes that patients tend to be less guarded, which in turn lowers their defences. Feeling secure is important to the success of any type of therapy.
Julie (name changed for privacy), an 11-year old girl, had grown unhappy and developed problems sleeping. Since the girl had difficulty expressing her feelings through words, her mother was reluctant to continue talk therapy. An acquaintance suggested art therapy, and as Julie was very creative and possessed a vivid imagination, her mother decided to give it a go.
The experience with art therapy exceeded her mother’s expectations. Not only did it help Julie express her emotions, it was surprisingly practical. “It taught her how to finish things she’d started. She learned mindfulness by creating the very tools that helped her focus.” Art therapy had become a safe space where Julie could express herself.
Julie’s opinion of art therapy was equally positive. “It was ideal for me because I liked drawing and artsy stuff. It helped me take my mind off things. I never got bored because going there was fun.”
Not just for Artsy-types
Art therapy is not about the result, but about the symbols and images that arise from the subconscious; therefore, anyone can pick up a brush and paint, not just self-proclaimed artists. It’s not uncommon for a therapist to ask a client to close their eyes and draw while focusing on an image, a memory or an emotion. Art can help patients overcome an unwillingness or an inability to verbalize sensitive and intimate issues.
Weinstein recalls children who’d been bullied or didn’t know how to form relationships. Often because of more mobile lifestyles. The images that arose from art therapy were quite vivid and helped “to understand what was going on at soul level”.
Weinstein respects the confidentiality of her patients above all. Judgement of artwork is checked at the door. Especially for children, “the art room is their safe space.”
We all need a safe space, a place where we can go to tend to our lives holistically. Art therapy may just be what satisfies our souls.
About the author
Carolyn van Es-Vines is a life coach and trainer as well an author of black and (A)broad: traveling beyond the limitations of identity, and she loves the work of Corneille.