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How Art Therapy Helps Me Cope With the Emotional Side of Chronic Pain

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It’s not hard to see why living with a chronic illness can be so debilitating at times. It can isolate you from friends and family and render your body and mind fit for nothing but bed rest. Your self-esteem can take a hit as you are forced into a different pace of life than others your age and it can ramp up anxiety levels because when you do go out, you are thinking about the worst case scenarios of your pain kicking in, letting people down and how you will cope if the shitty happens.

From my own experience, there are certain self-help tools that help to cultivate peace of mind, a sense of accomplishment and happiness. One creative practice I took to recently has had many benefits for me, and a new study reports that creativity and happiness are more closely linked than we think.

The study had hundreds of volunteers keep a daily diary for two weeks, describing their mood and rating how creative they had been. When they analyzed the diaries, the authors found that people who engaged in creative pursuits one day felt significantly more energetic, enthusiastic and excited the next.

Art therapy is a creative outlet of expression used as a therapeutic tool. It’s a form of psychotherapy that utilizes art media as its fundamental mode of expression and communication. Within this context, art is not used as diagnostic technique but as a way to address emotional stuff which may be confusing and distressing. But don’t be put off by the psychotherapy label – in essence it’s allowing yourself to play without putting any expectations on your feelings, emotions or pain.

The different types of art therapies that are regulated include:

  • Dance movement therapy (DMT)
  • Drama therapy
  • Music therapy
  • Visual art therapy

You do not need to have any artistic background or previous experience of visual arts, dance, drama or music to find art therapies useful to your individual situation. The aim isn’t to produce a masterpiece, but to use what you do during that time to understand yourself better. Allowing yourself to play without a goal is the probably the best gift you can give yourself.

Thanks to FACE Fibro and ME group on Facebook I was offered a place in an Art Therapy group that ran for eight weeks before Christmas. The group was amazing and consisted of some mindfulness techniques and lots of exploring and playing with different materials (so much glitter!). We sometimes worked as a group and other times on our own. The themes were varied but there was absolutely no pressure to “produce” anything. Our guide was an amazing woman who held a space for us to laugh so very hard with each other, shed a tear or two and pour glitter on just about everything. I’d highly recommend it even if you don’t think you are a “creative.”

I also partook in an online 30 day challenge with Creative Sprint. Follow them on Instagram if you want to join in the fun. They sent an email daily with a creative prompt. There were days I couldn’t move with the fibromyalgia and even a tiny creative sprint wasn’t possible, but I did catch up on my good days. The support from the community was fun and uplifting in itself and it was inspiring to see what others had created. I got enough out of it to buy a few copies of the book and give it out as a Christmas present last year.

Personally, I prefer some structure, so the groups and the book are a good fit for me, even if structure falls away when pain is extreme – it’s a nice preset to return to when it’s eased off a bit. But you may have other preferences or are already knitting your way to next winter or cooking up a storm with your kitchen creativity. Art Therapy is definitely not a “one shoe fits all.” Explore all your options if you can to see what really lights a fire under your creative butt. The organized sessions can take place in a one-to-one setting or within a group. If you feel lonely, or find it challenging to get to know people, you may find group art therapy helpful. If you feel more comfortable sharing your thoughts and feelings with just your therapist, you might prefer one-to-one sessions.

If you want to share your own experience below, I’d love to hear from you, or you can leave a link to your blog if it’s something you’ve written about before.

If you made it this far I thank you and encourage you to connect if you want help with your chronic illness. There is no need to struggle alone. I’ve found great info and workshops at Chronic Pain Ireland and also FibroIreland and the Irish M.E. Trust which have a free telephone counseling service available as well as support group meetings.

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Thinkstock photo via javitrapero.

Originally published: March 31, 2017
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