Saturday, June 20, 2015

Art Therapy for Chronic Illness

Many thanks to our guest writer Leslie Vandever from Healthline for this insightful article on the helpfulness of art therapy, and in particular coloring, as a way of managing and coping with chronic illness. 

Art Therapy for Chronic Illness

By Leslie Vandever
Art therapy is a form of mental health therapy--administered by certified art therapists--that includes the visual arts, like painting or sculpting. Art psychotherapists use it to help their disabled clients “explore their feelings, reconcile emotional conflicts, foster self-awareness, manage behavior and addictions, develop social skills, improve reality orientation, reduce anxiety, and increase self-esteem,” according to the American Art Therapy Association.
But recently, art therapy’s popularity has skyrocketed outside the clinical setting. Although the classification “art therapy” is debatable, many of today’s busy, stressed adults of all ages use a specific form of art therapy as a way to disconnect from today’s always-on, demanding, screen-centric, go-go-go world and just relax.
I’m one of them. I’ve joined many of my peers in adopting a beloved pastime of young children the world over: coloring. Sounds silly, doesn’t it? But instead of coloring simple line drawings with crayons like we did as kids, we color complex, intricate drawings using colored pencils, gel pens, or even paints. Those of us who are more artistically inclined create our own, original drawings to color; all of them require thought and various levels of concentration. The idea is to spark long-dormant creativity and to savor the simple joy of doing something fun just because you can.
It’s only frivolous if you think constant, unrelieved stress is beneficial.
But I’m not a “healthy” adult. My stress starts in my body, not in my mind: a painful, incurable, chronic illness causes it: autoimmune rheumatoid disease (arthritis). According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), “as of 2012 [in the US], about half of all adults—117 million people—had one or more chronic health conditions.
One of four adults had two or more chronic health conditions.” Can “art therapy” help people with chronic illnesses, too? Yes! I know first-hand that creating art helps me cope with my disease. I believe it can help others, too.
Chronic illness (defined as any long-lasting illness that can be controlled but not cured) and chronic pain (persistent pain that lasts weeks to years) can cause devastating feelings of isolation; loss of self-esteem; constant, unrelieved stress; and depression. They include such incurable or intractable conditions as cancer, the rheumatic diseases, and neurological illnesses such as neuropathy or complex regional pain syndrome (CRPS).
I’ve had rheumatoid disease (RD) for almost 29 years. It causes frequent, often severe and disabling pain, fatigue, and malaise. But art therapy works as a sure-fire form of relaxation and stress relief for me. When I’m creating and coloring one of those intricate pictures (yes, I was an artist in another life) my mind is not on my disease.
Now, make no mistake: pain and illness that never really goes away is exceedingly difficult to ignore. It creeps into everything you do, affecting every aspect of your life. It’s no wonder that chronic pain and illness often goes hand-in-hand with terrible, disabling depression.
But when the mind is distracted from pain and worry, and focused on something pleasant, like creating art (and yes, coloring pictures is creating art), an amazing thing happens. It rests, cradled in a benign activity that soothes, comforts, and conjures up feelings of satisfaction, comfort, and yes, joy. The science behind it? Coloring uses both sides of the brain and relaxes the amygdala, the primitive, fight-or-flight center of the brain. It also stimulates the release of feel-good hormones and chemicals like endorphins and serotonin. While I color, my mind relaxes--and I rest.
I can’t always practice my therapy. Sometimes, my RD affects my wrists and hands, making it too painful to press colored pencils to paper. At those times, I turn to other forms of distraction: music I love, a good book, a good movie--or all three.
Whatever you want to call it--art therapy, distraction, or just having fun--coloring and other forms of creating visual art are good for everyone.
Leslie Vandever is a professional journalist and freelance writer with 30 years of experience. She lives in Northern California.


● About Art Therapy. (n.d.) American Art Therapy Association. Retrieved on June 14, 2015 from
● What is Art Therapy? (2013) Art Therapy Without Borders. Retrieved on June 15, 2015 from
● Chronic Disease Overview. (2015, May 18) Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Retrieved on June 14, 2015 from
● Art Therapy. (n.d.) Retrieved on June 15, 2015 from

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