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Let me introduce myself. My name is Mark Sisson. I’m 63 years young. I live and work in Malibu, California. In a past life I was a professional marathoner and triathlete. Now my life goal is to help 100 million people get healthy. I started this blog in 2006 to empower people to take full responsibility for their own health and enjoyment of life by investigating, discussing, and critically rethinking everything we’ve assumed to be true about health and wellness...

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February 13, 2014

A Primal Look at Art Therapy

By Mark Sisson
45 Comments

PaintbrushesA few years ago as I was beginning to get a vision for what would become The Primal Connection, I was exploring the idea of vitality from new angles. I was interested in what lay beyond the basics for human survival: nutrition, movement and fitness, sleep, stress and sun. I wanted to examine the connections between our hunter-gatherer ancestors’ lifestyles (what we can reasonably determine and presume) and the existing (if somewhat marginal) activities and therapies that appeared to show therapeutic benefit in scientific studies. I talked about bibliotherapy, writing therapy, music therapy as well as other more enigmatic but relevant topics like silence, solitude, ritual and retreat. What could be gleaned from the research (and a bit of Primal philosophizing) for further refining the good life – the deeper sense of well-being that accesses and actualizes the many facets of our evolutionarily fashioned humanity? In the midst of my recent blogging forays into vegetable recommendations, gentle cooking, pollution mitigation and resistant starch, I’ve been thinking lately about those past explorations. Truth be told, looking into those areas influenced my life at the time. I’m one to write about what I live – or at very least try what I write about….

Recently, another one of those intriguing intersections between evolutionary activity and modern creative therapy has been on my mind. It’s one of those situations where you encounter something and suddenly you keep running into it. A friend’s mother is in hospice care and has her best days during the art therapist’s visits. A work associate talked about doing art therapy before the birth of her second child to release lingering tension from a traumatic first childbirth. Another friend’s child does art therapy in counseling sessions around family transition. I run into articles about art therapy for recent combat veterans and for women with breast cancer. It makes me stop and wonder. What is it about art that gets to the depths of our experience – often when other “normal” approaches fail? And what does (or should) this mean for everyday Primal life?

As the earlier examples suggest, art therapy has been applied to conditions as vastly various as eating disorders, autism, cardiovascular disease, cancer, brain injury (PDF), PTSD, pain management, anxiety and palliative care. From a medical standpoint, most agree that solid research of any significant scope is limited thus far. Yet as one study author writes (PDF), art related therapies “contribute significantly to the humanization and comfort of modern health care institutions by relieving stress, anxiety, and pain of patients and caregivers.” When you compare modern health care to what we likely evolved with in traditional shamanism or something akin to it, it’s no wonder that these auxiliary, “humanizing” therapies are so critical. We too often think we can separate medical acts from our human experience. We’re naturally (and appropriately) more sensitive to this with children’s experiences, but I think it applies to all of us. Yet, there’s something more universal to art therapy’s relevance. Beyond its use for medical issues, art therapy has also been demonstrated as effective for the mental health purposes of severe job burnout and severe stress. What’s at the root of this “alternate language” for processing pain and experience?

We know humans have been making art for tens of thousands of years. The oldest discovered cave paintings in Cantabria, Spain, date back to approximately 40,000 years ago. Shell beads found in eastern Morocco believed to have been for ornamentation are estimated at 82,000 years old. It boggles the mind to think of what existed when we see the traces that still exist today. Creativity was an immensely critical leap cognitively speaking for the human species. The symbolic and representational opened up whole new possibilities for communication and record keeping. More importantly, however, the creative representational capacity undoubtedly changed the way we perceived and interacted with the world as we developed the potential for mental modeling. It gave us a new means to engage material experimentation, social interaction – and personal introspection. We had the means to understand our own humanity and reflect on our experience through various expressive means – including but not limited to language.

When we look at creativity this way, it’s clear we’re not just talking about visual art or formal art therapy activities. There’s something uniquely and deeply human about creative expression of many kinds. With visual art, you might say, it’s a means of expression that doesn’t require linguistic engagement or even ability. It can engage multiple brain areas from memory to sensory to emotional centers to visual processing system. Yet, it’s perhaps simultaneously the simplest and richest means for emotional exploration. On that note…it’s rare for a research summary to elicit much feeling (and I’ve read thousands), but I stumbled upon this gem as I was digging for today’s blog. I’ve been hooked ever since. “Feeling effective as a young person depends on a capacity to draw upon one’s own resources in the service of healthy living and development. In adolescent health care, there is the need to call upon the talents and creativity of young people, to introduce new and exciting experiences, and to facilitate involvement in their own care in order to nurture optimal growth and development on a physical and psychological level.”

Now go back and read that using “human” and “people” in place of “adolescents”. Like this… Feeling effective as a human depends on the capacity to draw upon one’s own resources in the service of healthy living and development. In health care [and cultivating well-being], there’s a need to call upon the talents and creativity of people, to introduce new and exciting experiences, and to facilitate involvement in their own care in order to nurture optimal growth and development on a physical and psychological level. I think it makes perfect sense.

But why, then, do we relegate the importance of creative expression to illness and/or childhood/adolescence? Sure, as children there was room for exploration and experimentation in a day. There was time for expression just for the fun of it. Expression for the sake of play or self-discovery doesn’t have much of a role in our society beyond the age of 14. Unless we work in a particularly creative field, it just doesn’t figure in. The ordained, accepted use of art for adults is within a medicalized, therapy context. While I’m convinced of its therapeutic benefit, I wonder if creative expression is part of a larger force or longing within our innate humanity.

Let me pose this question: if art therapy (and other creative therapies) can make a substantive, measurable difference for people experiencing significant pain, hardship or disability, what power could it have within everyday life for how we cope with everyday stresses and conflicts, how we process the immense amount of emotional, social and intellectual information we take in, how we situate ourselves in the scope of our own life stories? Could we potentially be happier or better adjusted if we “indulged” in expressive arts (in our own personal ways) as a regular part of life? In this scenario particularly, it’s hardly a matter of life and death, but as I’ve said many times, my goal isn’t satisfactory survival. I prefer to thrive, and I’m good with doing whatever I think makes sense to get me there.

For me, I think this means appreciating the art of others around me, building the occasional furnishing and taking an active role in the design for my books as well as writing. Expression in this way acts as a mirror for what I might not otherwise see – nuances about myself, about the nature of health and vitality, about the meaning of Primal life – all that good stuff. When I take the time, I enjoy the flow of the process. For the biggest and most personal creative challenges, however, it’s even more than that. I’m taken in by it. The work itself opens up a path to follow. I move along its twists and turns having discovered dimensions of thought and self exploration inaccessible by any other route. In those moments I have the sense that it’s more than a creative experiment but something of a Primal imperative for the good life as I’d like to live it.

Intrigued? Curious? Interested in doing a little exploration yourself? Try out some visual journaling prompts or check out what one art therapy practitioner offers as the “Ten Coolest Art Therapy Interventions.”

Let me know your thoughts. Have you ever worked with an art therapist or in a setting where art was used for therapeutic purposes? Would you? Share your feedback, and thanks for reading, everybody.

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45 Comments on "A Primal Look at Art Therapy"

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paleocrush
2 years 7 months ago

Ever tried to paint your dreams?

And what a pleasure it is to doodle with your child. Seeing the world through their eyes in art is renewing to an adult soul. And the stories that can come out of it – priceless.

mightywindmill
mightywindmill
2 years 7 months ago

What an interesting idea. I’ve always struggled to think of subject matter, but this is genius.

paleocrush
2 years 7 months ago

🙂

Have you heard of lucid dreaming? Imagine being able to direct your dreams. You want to fly? You can fly.

Primal and Proud
Primal and Proud
2 years 7 months ago

Great stuff, I began studying music and learning guitar a few years ago and it has definitely had a positive impact on my sense of well-being and fulfillment. It was something I was missing, I just didn’t know I was missing it!

Josh Frey
2 years 7 months ago

“When we look at creativity this way, it’s clear we’re not just talking about visual art or formal art therapy activities. There’s something uniquely and deeply human about creative expression of many kinds”

^I think this is key. It’s been a long time since I’ve done art of any kind and even music has taken a back seat for me recently, but I think the important thing is engaging in ANY form of self-expression (even if it’s not what you’d traditionally refer to as a creative endeavor).

Cheers!

Matt YLBody
2 years 7 months ago

Nothing a like a good creativity session to help stimulate positive endorphins. We exercise physically and focus often on our weak muscles, why not exercise multiple parts of our brain as well.

Rhiannon
2 years 7 months ago

I wondered if art has been put down in society so much that one needs to add “therapy” to make it sound worth while for adults. I don’t know if I buy into the idea that I need a therapist to increase the use of my creative endeavors, I’d sooner just go to a dance/writing/music/etc teacher, but I believe that art has therapeutic use.

Michelle
2 years 7 months ago

I have a degree in visual art, and I occasionally get asked why I’m not “working in my field” or why I haven’t painted in years. I believe that that I use my creativity everywhere, in the kitchen, in the home, in my blog, etc. I don’t have to make money with my creativity for it to be worthwhile. 🙂

Happycyclegirl
Happycyclegirl
2 years 7 months ago

I have a journal and a pack of crayons beside my couch and will doodle sometimes when I am stressed. It’s worked so well that I have crayons and a journal in my desk at work and will use it to help off-load stress. It works great, is cheap and never ceases to impress me as to how much better I feel afterward.

Wenchypoo
Wenchypoo
2 years 7 months ago

Legos do it for me.

Beth
Beth
2 years 7 months ago

I suspect crafting of any kind comes into play (pun intended) here. Whether it’s woodworking, scrapbooking, sewing, painting/drawing, cartooning, or my personal favorite, crocheting, it’s an expression of self. “I made this”.

My creativity goes into making items for charity, so it’s a double win. I get to play with yarn and patterns, and babies in the community get afghans, sweaters, caps, mittens and booties to stay warm with.

It feeds my soul, which needs nourishment just as much as my body does.

Luke
2 years 7 months ago
I’m not artistic in the traditional sense of painting or drawing, but I really do enjoy the process of doing it. Although the paintings I’ve done look really childish I do enjoy the process. There’s something about the creative process that is soothing. I think it is the sense of accomplishment – “wow I made this!” When I’m having a stressful day, I look forward to cooking, it’s something I good at, and allows me to have those same feelings of accomplishment – “wow I made this amazing meal.” I have had an art project on the back burner for… Read more »
Jenny
Jenny
2 years 7 months ago

I’m doing an increasing amount of jewellery making and sewing, as I always seem to be happier when I’ve finished a project and can look at it and say ‘I did that!’ But finishing a project also means I get to plan the next one… and they’re getting increasingly elaborate!

paleocrush
2 years 7 months ago

I’m with you! Getting my Huskylock to complement the Husqvarna Viking was such a thrill and it doesn’t get much better as far as sewing goes 🙂 And knitting things for my daughter is so rewarding, she’s excited and I get to say what you said – “I made that!”

Kim
Kim
2 years 7 months ago
I’ve never been very artistic, but I’m a natural at music. As a kid, I was too hard myself to make my art look good and I could never do that. As an adult, I’m completely in love with color! Butterscotch yellows in my foyer, bedroom and dining room, pumpkin orange in my kitchen and half bath, spring green in my dining room and candy apple red in my mud room (to match my washer and dryer). Some people think it’s too color-blocky, but the yellow/orange colors are warm and cozy and remind me warm days, sunsets, campfires, harvest time… Read more »
Jade
Jade
2 years 7 months ago

My grandmother was an artist, I am an artist, my daughter is also and my son is a wood worker and creates beautiful furniture. I haven’t done a portrait in many years, too busy with work and family I guess. This post reminded me how much I miss it…and need it,

Thanks Mark

Jim Haas
Jim Haas
2 years 7 months ago

Perfect timing, Mark! I have a load of pottery in the kiln today. Making things that are both attractive and useful is so satisfying, and working with earth and fire feels pretty primal.

2Rae
2Rae
2 years 7 months ago
My son had a different set of parents for his first year and a half, as a result of his experiences early in life he has trouble with stress now. He uses art when he’s in school (in my opinion) to help manage his stress while he’s there. Sadly his teachers don’t see it as stress management but as goofing off, disobedience or disrespect. At least he as an art friendly house with us, along with parents who both encourage him to do his art and clean it up so we can actually use the table, couch, floor, etc.
SumoFit
2 years 7 months ago
Everyone is an artist of one kind or another. At some (relatively recent) point in history, the concepts of “art” and “artist” were separated from our daily lives. One had to meet certain formal criteria to be considered an “artist”. This deters many people from trying their hand at painting, sculpting, woodworking, etc., because they think they’re no good at it. Nonsense! Nobody has to see or critique your work; you create it for yourself. I find terms such as “art therapy” and “music therapy” funny. Most activities in which human beings engage can be considered therapy. How about cooking… Read more »
Cathy Malchiodi, PhD
2 years 7 months ago

Thanks for the links to the Psychology Today articles I wrote– and thanks for the nice summary of the “primal” aspects of art therapy!

Sitara
Sitara
2 years 7 months ago

I think it is way more than ‘art’. We, at our core, are creators. After all we create everything in our lives…..everything. It is this expression of creativity that is vital to who we are. It can be music, carpentry, bricklaying, dog training, growing a garden, or knitting a sweater, it is all an expression of our innate creativity. When we stop being creative, we stop living.

Nocona
Nocona
2 years 7 months ago

Make your whole life art. The art of living!

katieCHI
katieCHI
2 years 7 months ago

I’m an artist professionally and sometimes it is therapy, and sometimes art is stressful and I’ll have to fight with a piece before I can get it to the point where I like it. But there is a feeling of accomplishment when a piece finally does get there.

patrick
2 years 7 months ago
art is certainly chicken soup for the soul. Im not so sure “art therapy” is the type of thing we should be self prescribing. If there isn’t an MD it doesn’t count as “Therapy”, right? That doesn’t mean “art” shouldn’t be engaged as often as possible. everyone should keep a sketchbook (or “gearnal”) and progressing from front to back, through time, pages should get marked up with the energy of the days events. words will suffice, but keep your mind open to the possibilities. interesting direction Mark. I honestly expected a challenge or an assignment at the end of this… Read more »
Dr. Anthony Gustin
2 years 7 months ago

This is no surprise at all. After being knee deep in scientific talk all day with patients it is extremely helpful for me to play guitar or do some photo/video work to escape and use up all avenues of my brain!

Kelda
Kelda
2 years 7 months ago

Taoist internal cultivation recognises the importance of art as a way to balance. Calligraphy and painting are as intrinsic as qigong and taiji practices. And they’ve known this for 1000s of years.

Andrea
Andrea
2 years 7 months ago
This really rings true for me right now. When I was younger I was involved in many “home crafts”. I sewed my children’s clothes, I knitted and crocheted, I made quilts and did cross stitch and embroidery. Later I started to scrap book. I even took up a part time job in a scrapbook store to support my habit! Gradually I stopped doing all those things. A friend reminded me that when she was feeling depressed it was crafting that helped lift her spirits. I recently started knitting again and it made me feel so good to complete a project… Read more »
Peter Whiting
2 years 7 months ago

Being more creative and exploring art is something I really want to do more of. Thanks for your post. It helps me keep some momentum in this direction.

My wife and daughter are wonderfully artistic and creative, but I think I have some sort of limiting belief that I’m no good at it. It’s not true, but it holds me back.

Thanks for giving me a nudge.

salixisme
2 years 7 months ago

I cannot draw or paint to save my life, but I do embroidery, knit and crochet, and I feel so much more relaxed after doing it… to my mind that is art in another way as I am creating an object, and in most cases a really beautiful object. I also think that cooking is “art” as well.
I have just realised that I need to knit more!

granny gibson
granny gibson
2 years 7 months ago

I started thinking about the different hobbies I’ve picked up over the years. I never thought of them as theraputic, but I know now that they all were, from the time I learned to hook a potholder in second grade. Music is the underlying theme, though. Where (who) would I be without my therapies!

Elsie Harrington
Elsie Harrington
2 years 7 months ago
As a third generation professional artist and educator, I would like to mention that as a therapy it can be fantastic, but must be approached in a non-aspirational manner to get the deepest benefits. In paleolithic times, except for tribal competition, the shamanic discovery process was the goal and the existing portal well tended. Now, the very notion of art is so encrusted with ideas like: stardom, genius, romance, stories of addiction lifestyles, failure and success in the world and as persons, so that simply making art for fun and discovery is not so simple anymore. As soon as you… Read more »
WelshGrok
WelshGrok
2 years 7 months ago

The Samurai used to practice various arts as a contrast to the ugliness of combat – now it’s being used in the treatment of PTSD in combat veterans. The wisdom of the past should never be discounted!

Angel
Angel
2 years 7 months ago
As a veteran of the Iraq war, amedical professional, and an artist, I can help attest to a couple of the major reasons that art works as therapy. The first is obviously expression. By offering an outlet for various emotions that we as humans may have never learned words for, or may have (as is often the case of many men) have learned that such emotions are shameful. Emotions like guilt and uncertainty and fear, often occur in us at the same time as love and hope and joy, and we have difficulty reconciling those things that to our language-centered… Read more »
Kevin Grokman
Kevin Grokman
2 years 7 months ago

Wonderful exposure to what happens to veterans. As a medical professional, I sure hope your voice is heard and that you can be (or have already been) an influence in appropriate circles to get veterans the assistance and attention they deserve!

Kevin Grokman
Kevin Grokman
2 years 7 months ago

Thank you for sharing that perspective.

Issabeau
Issabeau
2 years 7 months ago

My garden is my yearly project.
It just keeps growing and makes me happy, not to mention keeping me healthy.

Kevin Grokman
Kevin Grokman
2 years 7 months ago
I recently rediscovered the joy in doing something besides writing science- or regulatory-based documents for my job or writing chapter summaries for a science course. A friend of mine, an artist, encouraged me to relive those childhood experiences of taking the time to stop and draw. I’m no artist, but it quieted my mind enough to make me relaxed. Earlier this week, another friend of mine, bartender and violinist, brought me a (spare) harmonica that she had because I revealed that I have long thought that “if I pick up an instrument,” a harmonica is one of a select few… Read more »
angel
angel
2 years 7 months ago
Don’t ever call yourself “not an artist.” Like anything, it takes lots of practice and a good teacher. Mark says that we should never call ourselves “not an athlete” but to search for the type of athlete we can and want to be. The same is true of art. You can teach anyone how to draw. The trick is learning to turn off what your brain knows about the world and record only exactly what you see, in relation to everything around it. Some people are naturally good at this, true, just like some people are naturally good at jumping… Read more »
Kevin Grokman
Kevin Grokman
2 years 7 months ago

Well said! And thank you for the kick in the perspective! I am a novice, yet aspiring artist!

Florence
2 years 7 months ago

Yes to this post. In recovery from an eating disorder and anxiety disorder I’ve found painting to be so wonderful, even though I’m terrible at it..something about creating color with our hands

C Bomb
C Bomb
2 years 7 months ago

I’m currently a police officer but do magic shows on the side. I’ve always said, if I could go full-time, I’d perform. Mostly because when it’s all said and done, I can step back and see that I’ve created something worthwhile. If I couldn’t do that, I’d go back and be a carpenter so when people were awed by a building or cabinets or furniture, I could know I’ve influenced someone in a great way

Aqiyl Aniys
2 years 7 months ago

Art therapy is great because it helps to pul together the global side of the right brain hemisphere and the analytical and component driven left hemisphere. It helps to unify us which relaxes and helps tune us into the universe.

Orannhawk
Orannhawk
2 years 7 months ago
As an artist and an author, creating is an integral part of my life. It is a daily process for me to create in multiple forms. That said, when I am dealing with stress or frustration, and even when I experienced times of grief or depression, it becomes a vital part of my life, my lifeblood, my breath. The action of expressing myself during these times through whatever modality I have chosen, allows me to purge myself of my issues. I feel the shift within minutes, transforming me back to a place of joy or at least acceptance. In the… Read more »
Rene LaBore
Rene LaBore
2 years 7 months ago

As a former preschool teacher I often had to remind parents that the “process” of making art is more important than the end product. Aside from all the physiological benefits, I think art making can take us to another place….a place of beauty. We may not achieve that in every attempt but it is part of being a human to strive for expression of our inner selves. As in life…it is the journey that matters.

Rebecca Bloom
2 years 7 months ago

I’ve been a practicing art therapist for 15 years and see all the time how the process of art making brings people closer to their truth. If you are looking for an easy way to start making art – check out my book – Square the Circle: art therapy workbook.

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