3 Art Therapy Techniques for Chronic Pain

3 Art Therapy Techniques for Chronic Pain


An art therapist and breast cancer survivor outlines three art therapy techniques to help you through the complex experience of chronic pain.

The experience of chronic pain goes far beyond the physical. It impacts your mental, emotional, and spiritual well-being. The ramifications and reminders of your pain are ongoing, which means that finding reprieve can be incredibly difficult.

Research has shown that art therapy is effective in lowering pain levels and stress and improving mood and quality of life for people who have both acute and chronic pain. This is because art therapy assists you in emotionally processing the uncomfortable aspects of life.

As an art therapist and breast cancer survivor, I appreciated the concepts presented in a book by Bruce H. Lipton, Ph.D. entitled The Biology of Belief: Unleashing the Power of Consciousness, Matter, & Miracles. He noticed that cells under a microscope looked different depending upon whether the person was relaxed or stressed. His theory is that one’s beliefs hold the key to emotional regulation, and that this impacts us at the cellular level.

The premise of his book became my inspiration for healing emotionally from breast cancer. By focusing on one moment, one cell at a time, I realized I could have a deeper impact on my healing process.

When something feels overwhelming, like chronic pain, learning how to narrow your focus can make it easier to cope. It’s a delicate balance between acceptance, surrender, and seeing what might be possible if you take a chance and try something new.

What Is Art Therapy and How Does It Work?

Art therapy is a form of communication that reflects your experience without being dependent on words alone. Through color, shape, and form, you become the translator. You’re empowered to be a curious observer who interprets what’s happening inside of you onto paper. This act of observing allows you to take space away from the pain and emotions churning inside you.

Art therapy helps you validate your experience, relieve distress, and improve creative problem solving. You don’t have to be an artist to benefit from these practices. There’s no right or wrong way to do it—let your creative impulses guide the way.

To lessen your performance anxiety, start by selecting art supplies that feel familiar, like markers and colored pencils. I also recommend working with supplies that are easy to blend together, like paints and chalk pastels. In art therapy, blending typically represents the mixed emotions that come with difficult experiences. Blending colors can also be satisfying and relaxing, as it symbolizes transformation and change, which sparks hope.

How to Benefit from Art Therapy

There are two steps that you need to take to benefit from the practice of art therapy.

The first step is to do the art project. Listen to what your creative instinct wants to do on the paper, even if it does not make sense to you at the time. When you’re finished, give your creation a title. This usually offers insight into what the artwork represents from your subconscious.

The second step is to describe what your creation portrays by journaling or discussing it with someone you trust. Notice how you feel now compared to when you started. Did you find yourself becoming immersed in the experience? How did that serve you?

3 Art Therapy Exercises to Manage Chronic Pain

The following three art therapy exercises are designed to assist you in finding reprieve from your chronic pain. They each serve a different purpose, so tune into which one feels right to you at this time. I suggest having a spiral-bound art journal dedicated to this practice so that you can review and reflect upon your process as you proceed.

Find Your Flow

Chronic pain creates tension in the body. The purpose behind this technique is to engage your senses with music and art to find the flow state. Being able to reconnect with this kind of ease reminds you and your body that you can feel peace, even if it's for a brief period.

For this activity, I’d recommend instrumental music that feels inspiring or soothing. I encourage you to use art supplies that flow and blend without much effort so that you can be more focused. If you want to paint but holding a paintbrush is not comfortable for you, you might try finger painting instead.

Let the music inspire how you paint or draw on the paper, following its lead like a dance partner. When your flow session feels finished, take a moment to appreciate what you’ve created and how you feel inside.

Art-It-Out, Art-It-In

The phrase “art-it-out, art-it-in” evolved from the work I do with the cancer community. It is the catchphrase we use to describe the process and how art therapy impacts your emotional well-being.

“Art-it-out” is the act of getting off your chest the thoughts and feelings that are bothering you. This is a form of validation that honors your experience without judgment or trying to force yourself to feel better and more positive. You’re demonstrating self-acceptance when you express what most people try to repress or avoid. This normally gives you more energy for dealing with what is.

“Art-it-in” is the practice of embodying the thoughts, feelings, and energy that can help you in this present moment. This is a form of responding with loving kindness to yourself and your chronic pain. By representing your supportive reply through art, you’ll discover the release of tension in your body, mind, and spirit.

Art Therapy as Storytelling

Chronic pain, like all other significant life experiences and events, typically impacts your perception of yourself and the world. It creates a narrative of beliefs that may influence how you live with the pain.

Words alone usually fail to adequately tell the story of your experience. This happens because of how traumatic experiences are coded in your brain and body. Since art therapy works with symbolism, it facilitates a fuller expression of what’s happened. It taps into your subconscious and nervous system. Once traumatic experiences have been expressed through art, words to describe what you’ve been through are easier to find. It’s as if you’re removing a roadblock to verbal expression through the process of creation.

To begin, select an important moment from your experience with chronic pain that you’d like to explore. Then, close or soften your eyes as you recall this occasion. The goal is to feel deeply connected to it.

Notice what specifics you remember, including sensory details. Tune into how you are experiencing this memory inside of yourself as you recall it. This will help you translate the moment onto paper. When you feel deeply immersed, use your art supplies to tell the story. This can be an abstract or literal expression of your experience. Trust what feels right to you.

When your piece feels finished, take time to journal about what you did. Describe what you see and how it represents your story. Notice that integration is happening inside of you. Pay attention to how what you discover may bring meaning and closure. How does this affect your sense of self and the lessons that you’re learning?

You may observe that you are called to review these moments more than once. This is to be expected with significant life events, as self-awareness and understanding are multi-layered and often reveal themselves over time. What will feel different next time is that you now have a method for telling the story of your pain that incorporates your body, mind, spirit, and self into the process.

Art Therapy: A Road Back to Yourself Amidst Chronic Pain

One of the things I love about art therapy is the way in which it reminds you of who you are. Chronic pain can make you feel like you’ve lost yourself. To reclaim what’s missing, it’s important to honor how you feel, what you’ve been through, and what sparks joy inside despite the obstacles you face. This is the key to feeling like you again.

While contending with the complex process of chronic pain, may tuning into your creative spirit bring you periods of reprieve. May these exercises help you find the insight and understanding that serves you well. May you find moments of ease and joy that capture your unique story that deserves to be told.

Explore color meditation to supplement your art therapy practice.

3 Art Therapy Techniques for Chronic Pain

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