A Primal Look at Art Therapy

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.

About the Author

Mark Sisson is the founder of Mark’s Daily Apple, godfather to the Primal food and lifestyle movement, and the New York Times bestselling author of The Keto Reset Diet. His latest book is Keto for Life, where he discusses how he combines the keto diet with a Primal lifestyle for optimal health and longevity. Mark is the author of numerous other books as well, including The Primal Blueprint, which was credited with turbocharging the growth of the primal/paleo movement back in 2009. After spending three decades researching and educating folks on why food is the key component to achieving and maintaining optimal wellness, Mark launched Primal Kitchen, a real-food company that creates Primal/paleo, keto, and Whole30-friendly kitchen staples.

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